“Asi gana el Madrid,” (that’s how Madrid win) the famous song goes around the stands of the Bernabéu. It has traditionally been the way that Real Madrid fans have revelled in the imperious swagger of their side, representing a club with a hand in creating the European Cup and which dominated it in its infancy in the mid-1950s.
The Spanish champions-elect have come to make the new version of the competition, the Champions League, theirs as well in the 21st century. They were the first team in the post-1992 format to retain the trophy when they won it in three straight years during Zinedine Zidane‘s first spell in charge. Yet while Cristiano Ronaldo, Marcelo, Luka Modrić, Sergio Ramos, Karim Benzema and the rest trip off the tongue, the Zidane era way of doing things was very different to the original conquerors of Ferenc Puskas, Raymond Kopa and Paco Gento.
Madrid can find a way
As previously discussed in this column, the returning Carlo Ancelotti has made a big difference to Real Madrid this season. He has squeezed the best out of senior players (as he has throughout his career) while also developing the youngsters, with Vinicius Junior having a best-ever season and Rodrygo weighing in usefully, particularly with the smart volley which delivered his team into extra-time with Chelsea.
Yet there are plenty of parallels between this season’s vintage and those Zidane teams that won in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Good, a lot of Madridistas might well say – it was a winning recipe. That is true but for a winning team, that El Real vintage didn’t half like flying by the seat of its pants.
The 2016 team had to overcome a 2-0 first leg deficit to Wolfsburg in the quarter-finals and was running on fumes by the time penalties arrived against Atlético in the final.
In 2017, they ran perilously close to elimination against Bayern Munich at the Bernabéu and just about survived an Atlético comeback in the second leg of the semi. They needed a last-gasp Ronaldo penalty (again at home) to ward off a surging Juventus before again being cajoled by Bayern in the last four.
If Zidane still has nightmares about some of those scrapes, Ancelotti can maybe sympathise down the line. His side have arguably been second best for between six and seven of the eight halves they’ve played against Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea – not to mention extra-time at the Bernabéu – with both of those storied opponents indulging in a touch of self-sabotage. Asi gana el Madrid, many have been saying. In this competition they can find a way, come what may.
Ancelotti is far too smart to believe that Madrid’s intrinsic individual quality, added to their experience, will be enough to deliver them against Manchester City.
Ancelotti must produce something special
Midfield has been the main issue for Madrid in the knockout rounds, particularly mobility, and the centre of the park is City’s main area of strength. Bringing in Federico Valverde in an advance position on the right got Los Merengues off to a great start at Stamford Bridge, and you wonder if more energy, via the increasingly influential Rodrygo and Eduardo Camavinga (the latter played a very useful cameo in the return versus PSG), is required.
Either way, Real Madrid’s margin for error has shrunk considerably for this semi-final. If they are to reach Paris, Ancelotti needs to have something special up his sleeve – and not just wait for Benzema to produce some magic as he so often does. To see him park the bus in Manchester as they did in Paris would not be a surprise and it’s why under 1.5 goals appeals at 4.94/1.