Soccer

Champions League: The case for Real Madrid winning the competition yet again with Zidane leading the charge

Remember last season when Real Madrid fell to Manchester City in the UEFA Champions League round of 16? That was the only time under manager Zinedine Zidane in which the club failed to win the competition. In four campaigns under the legendary French coach, Real won their first three (2016, 2017, 2018), becoming the first team to three-peat since Ajax did it in the 1970s. Now, ahead of facing Chelsea in the semifinals on Tuesday (you can watch the match on Paramount+), Los Blancos are the favorites to advance to the May 29 final in Istanbul. Getting this far without Cristiano Ronaldo, with Eden Hazard hardly even playing and a makeshift defense stepping up in the absence of superstars, Real find themselves just 180 minutes away from potentially yet another final, having come a long way from the group stage where they barely got through.

So, what does this team posses that makes them legit contenders? Here are three reasons making a case for Real to once again win it all.

1. The defense continues to dominate and keep them in games

When you go through the issues they’ve had defensively, it was only natural to expect a Liverpool-like collapse. They, on the other hand, have just gotten better. With Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane battling the coronavirus recently, and with Ramos missing time due to six different injuries this season, the club has been forced to patch up the backline mainly with Nacho stepping in. And as of late, they’ve been sensational. 

Real have not conceded a goal in the last 390 minutes, stretching back five matches to El Clasico against Barcelona, which they won 2-1. In La Liga and Champions League play, they have allowed 14 goals in 28 games stretching back to December 5. 

In fact, only one team has scored more than a goal against them this calendar year, and that was Levante in January with Real playing down a man for 81 minutes. That allows them to stay in every single match and why they aren’t far off the top in La Liga.

Nacho played both matches against Liverpool in the quarters where Madrid only conceded one in two games, with the Spanish veteran looking composed, understanding his assignment and helping shutdown a Reds attack that can make anybody look silly.

While at times the attack hasn’t been consistent, just like this weekend in the 0-0 draw with Real Betis, the defense remains the strong point that has helped them get this far and turn the corner after a rough start to the season where they were mistake prone and lacked discipline. 

2. Madrid have the experience and know what it takes

At this stage, experience is invaluable, the understanding of what it takes to thrive under pressure late in the Champions League. That experience, which the older players can lean on to help comfort and instruct the younger players in the squad, could be key. Nobody knows this more than Zidane and no team knows more about it than Real Madrid. While the past doesn’t dictate the future, Real still have vital experience that can help them in various situations, having overcome so many challenging moments in the past on their way to glory. 

While a good chunk of players still left in the competition have been to this stage, none have been as often as a group than Real. Just look at the amount of players in each squad that have won this competition before:

Real Madrid: 13
Chelsea: 0
Manchester City: 0
PSG: 4 

Any manager will tell you how vital the experience in a competition is, knowing what players tend to step up in those situations and which don’t, what has worked in the past when it comes to tactics, and what type of motivation really hits through with a team to not be complacent. 

No club has been there more or won it more than Real Madrid, and historically they are the ultimate kings of Europe and will be for many years to come.  Don’t doubt them, because it could be their year once again.

Ability down the wing could be the key

They have to get by Chelsea first, obviously. And they would be the slight underdog in a final against either PSG or Manchester City, but they will like their chances against teams that have given them trouble over the last few seasons. If you dig a little deeper, PSG and City have similar styles in that their fullbacks really get forward often. While keeping with a traditional back four, the fullbacks often overlap the wingers to create chance via crosses or step into midfield to provide more passing targets. Heck, Real Madrid often do it too. But Zidane has shown a willingness to keep defensive shape and reel in those fullbacks from getting too far up the pitch, even when having to put none-defenders there like Fede Valverde and Lucas Vazquez. We saw that against Liverpool last time out, we may see it against Chelsea and certainly in the final if they get there. It’s not to say they won’t get forward, but they’ll pick their moments and more often than not they will stay back, especially at home when conceding can be problematic due to the away goals rule.

While PSG and City aren’t expected to keep fullbacks back, aiming to overpower in attack and cover their defense with help from the middle, that could result in plenty of space down the wings for Real in attack, which is exactly what they want. With the speed of players like Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo, expect Real to look to play quickly and keep  their wingers as wide as possible, interchanging with striker Karim Benzema as they aim to keep the defenses off balance.

Chelsea won’t give them anything easy, and chances will be hard to come by, so the lack of sharpness we saw on Saturday must improve. Keep an eye on those wingers and their ability to get in behind the defense to feed Benzema. If they can get back on track there, they’ll set themselves up nicely ahead of the second leg next week.



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