Just too good: how Real Madrid’s depth ensured a canter to the title

Just too good: how Real Madrid’s depth ensured a canter to the title

Over two hours had passed since the final whistle went on Real Madrid’s 3-0 victory over Cadiz and some of their players were still inside inside the Santiago Bernabéu watching on TV when they officially found out they were champions, but they had known for a long time. The title, eventually delivered by Girona’s 4-2 victory over Barcelona 681 kilometres to the north-east and confirmed at 8.30pm on the 34th Saturday of the season, did not see them board an open-top bus down the Castellana to Cibeles, although fans did gather by the goddess of fertility. There was more to do – Bayern Munich come on Wednesday night – and, besides, this was already done.

It had been for some time. Two weeks earlier, Jude Bellingham had scored a 94th-minute goal to win the clásico, their last remaining contenders eliminated, if you could truly call Barcelona that. Two months earlier they had put four past the nearest thing they had to genuine challengers, effectively eliminating Girona too: they were the most exciting, the most surprising team but they would not be champions. As for Atlético Madrid, the only team to defeat Real all season, they had eliminated themselves even sooner, gone by Christmas. This hadn’t been a race; ultimately, it had been a parade.

The night Girona lost 4-0 to Madrid in February there was a hint of relief in the words of their manager, Michel Sánchez, as if he had been liberated from a lie, the obligation for the season’s great revelation to do a Leicester. “When you face someone this good, you see your own reality, and this isn’t our league,” he said. Instead, it was Madrid’s, and almost from the beginning. That may feel over simplistic – and those early weeks didn’t yet suggest domination – but with four games to go, their lead is an unassailable 13 points over Girona (14 ahead of Barcelona) and, in the final analysis, they were just better, too good for everyone else. Even when they didn’t seem that good themselves.

”Seem” may be the key word there. Madrid are good. Top from weeks one to five, eight to 11 and 14 to 19, they took the lead again in week 21 and never let go. They dominate every meaningful metric. They have scored more goals and conceded fewer than anyone else, completed more passes and dribbles, created more chances and had more shots. No one has won a higher percentage of tackles or duels, nor kept more clean sheets.

“There are two types of managers: those that do nothing and that do a lot of damage,” Carlo Ancelotti said this week. “The game belongs to the players.” And Madrid’s are very, very good. In the end, for all the analysis, sometimes maybe it comes down to that most basic fact. At the end of the Girona game, Ancelotti suggested Vinícius Júnior was the best in the world. Who, he was asked, is next? “Bellingham,” he said. “Third? Rodrygo … Fourth: Kroos … Valverde, Camavinga …” Of course he is biased. But, he said, “being on the bench today was very comfortable”.

Carlo Ancelotti with his players after Real Madrid’s win over Barcelona in AprilView image in fullscreen

It was classic Ancelotti, his refusal to make it about him part of what makes him successful, but there was something in that. And yet nothing is not the word for what he has done. Instead he has quietly got on with finding solutions; in this squad, there are many of them.

In the 3-0 win over Cadiz on Saturday, when Madrid’s 27th victory put them within someone else’s 90 minutes of the title, Thibaut Courtois started in goal, making a decisive save at 0-0. It was the first time he had played all season, having sustained a cruciate ligament injury, an entire campaign undertaken without the best goalkeeper in the world. There were sufficient doubts about Andriy Lunin that Madrid hurriedly signed Kepa Arrizabalaga but the Ukrainian became the first choice and only two keepers have saved a higher percentage of shots.

Éder Militão meanwhile was making only his third start against Cádiz and David Alaba still hasn’t returned from a knee injury of his own. Ancelotti called their injuries at centre-back a “world record” but he did not linger on it and it did not derail them. In their absence, Antonio Rüdiger has been Spain’s best defender. Aurélien Tchouaméni doesn’t like it but has played at centre-back, and exceptionally well. So has Dani Carvajal. Lucas Vázquez and Eduardo Camavinga have performed at full-back.

Toni Kroos, seemingly on the way out, has been arguably the country’s best player in a restructured midfield; rested against Cadiz he has completed 1,999 passes and he has seven assists. With Karim Benzema unexpectedly leaving a year earlier than Kylian Mbappé will arrive, Ancelotti also invented a new, sort-of-striker role for Jude Bellingham, and the England international became the league’s top scorer in the first half of the season; he has slowed since February, felt frustrations, but is still only one off Artem Dovbyk. Joselu and Brahim were goalscorers on the day it was all tied up, their contributions key, 9 and 6 goals each.

Despite the recent frustration, this league belongs to Bellingham, who has participated directly in 22 goals, but it has been all of theirs. Vinícius struggled with injury and has started only 20 league games, his season not really up and running until January, but he has scored 13 and provided five assists. Rodrygo had doubts but has 10 and five. No one has played more minutes than Fede Valverde, whose only problem according to Ancelotti is that he is not arrogant enough, but the coach has welcomed that trait in others, embracing the absences others might have moaned about.

skip past newsletter promotion

“In times of difficulty, emergency and need, the commitment is higher,” he said.

Real Madrid’s Rodrygo, centre, scores his side’s fourth goal against Girona in FebruaryView image in fullscreen

At the season’s start it had looked far from simple but Madrid found a way. They opened with a 2-0 win at San Mames against Athletic (still the only team to win there this season), won 3-1 against Almería, who are on course to be the second-worst team in La Liga history, and then scraped past Celta 1-0. Bellingham scored in all of those and then again versus Getafe, getting the winner in the 94th minute of his home debut. Madrid did not convince entirely, and when they lost to Atlético in week six, it felt a little like a reminder of reality, their flaws exposed. Instead, Ancelotti closed the gap on the left and they didn’t lose again.

When it really mattered, they took a step forward, any hope offered to the rest soon extinguished along with the doubts they might have had. Girona were the story of the season and Madrid put three past them in late September; a little flattering, perhaps, but they did. Against Barcelona they won twice, Bellingham getting the late winner both times. The first clásico win was followed by a 0-0 draw against Rayo Vallecano, the only time they failed to score, and next came 10 wins in 11 games. Then Atlético held them, a little hope for Girona before going to the Bernabéu and letting in four. Aggregate score against the only other team that truly looked like competing for the title: 7-0.

Madrid found a way, week after week, until they were standing a long way ahead of the rest. And when the two teams nearest to them, challengers who couldn’t really challenge them, faced each other on Saturday night, Girona were not the only winners, celebrating a historic Champions League place. The night’s, the year’s, biggest winners had already finished their match, just watching and waiting now for confirmation of what they had long known to be true.

Source: theguardian.com