Real Madrid look like the strongest challengers on paper and with flaws to rivals like Barcelona and Bayern Munich, who can stop them?
Real Madrid have made a stuttering start to their La Liga campaign, dropping points in both of their first home games after an opening-day 3-0 win at Deportivo.
Their league start comes with mitigating circumstances – they’re yet to be able to field either their first-choice defence, with Raphael Varane injured and Sergio Ramos missing one game through suspension, or their first-choice attack, due to Cristiano Ronaldo’s five-game domestic ban.
Granted, Zinedine Zidane’s side should be able to overcome such obstacles, and it should be said that they have been architects of their own downfall during the two draws.
Against both Valencia and Levante, Madrid dominated the game in terms of shots, chances created, and possession, and, put simply, they should have won, both times. They were denied by some inspired goalkeeping and some inept finishing.
There’s no doubt that the two draws have raised concerns for the double European champions.
But what this also means is that so far, we’ve not seen the best of Real Madrid this season – and we know what their best is capable of. This is a superb side, arguably the best in Europe, and it’s on the verge of making history yet again.
THE GREATEST EVER?
Only three teams have won Europe’s premier club competition three times in a row: Bayern Munich and Ajax in the 1970s and Madrid themselves in the 1950s, when they won five in a row.
No one’s done it in the Champions League era – indeed, nobody had won two in a row until Madrid achieved that feat last season. And a look at their squad, and their stats, suggests there’s little to stop them from extending their run.
Dani Carvajal, Ramos, Varane, and Marcelo make up a formidable back line, and in Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, and Casemiro, they possess Europe’s best midfield. The Modric-Kroos axis’ stats are remarkable:
head of them they have any two of Isco, Marco Asensio, Karim Benzema, and Gareth Bale to set off in attack, and, of course, Ronaldo.
If ten goals in the Champions League quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals seemed like an awesome feat, consider this: Ronaldo is probably even more motivated this year.
RONALDO’S ON A MISSION
He’s got a World Cup coming up and he wants to be in top form for that. His Ballon D’or window is closing, with Neymar and the rest of the young brigade poised to take over soon, but he’ll likely draw level with Lionel Messi this year and thus could overtake his rival next year with one more devastating, end-of-season, Champions-League-winning run.
Oh, and thanks to a tax evasion case and that five-match ban for his red card in the Supercopa, he’s angry – and Ronaldo imitates the Hulk in more ways than his muscle-flexing goal celebrations.
And, more than any other competition he’s played in, the Champions League is Ronaldo’s stage.
et again, Madrid are in a position to prioritise the Champions League. Sure, they know they should defend their La Liga crown as well, but, as always, European success carries extra significance.
Two in a row was special. Three in a row will elevate this team to legendary status, a team that can be talked of as among the best ever. Add it to their 2014 success, and it would be four Champions League titles in five years – and that would make this, undoubtedly, the Real Madrid era.
Who can stop that from happening?
Juventus, Bayern Munich, and Barcelona are the likeliest challengers. Atletico Madrid and perhaps Borussia Dortmund have an outside shot and Paris Saint-Germain, after landing Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, are the wild cards.
Each one of them has their flaws. Barcelona’s midfield, so recently the bedrock of their success, cannot match Madrid’s anymore and Ousmane Dembele has a long way to go before he can be considered to be as much of a threat as Neymar was.
Bayern are an aging side and suddenly seem to lack cohesion under Carlo Ancelotti. Juventus have a suffocating defence and a brilliant attack, but will struggle again with Madrid’s pace, power, and incision. And, let’s not forget, all three have come away bruised and battered from recent encounters with Madrid.
As have Atletico Madrid, who in recent years have enjoyed the most success against Zidane’s side. Real Madrid set the record straight last year, outscoring their city rivals 8-3 across four La Liga and Champions League encounters, including two 3-0 wins.
PSG are the intriguing one. The Neymar-Mbappe-Cavani front three is fearsome, and they possess a quality midfield in Marco Verratti, Thiago Motta, and Adrien Rabiot.
However, time and again in Europe in recent seasons, they’ve revealed a defensive vulnerability which has allowed top sides to overpower them.
Madrid’s defence may not be able to completely contain the Parisians’ star-studded attack, but Los Blancos’ own strike force is more than capable of overwhelming PSG’s rearguard.
Hopefully the two sides meet in this year’s competition so that this is no longer a purely theoretical prediction, but until then, the reigning European champions have the edge.
Real Madrid have been demonstrably better than nearly all of their nearest challengers, and, on the back of winning two Champions League titles in a row, still have room to improve.
Are they set to go from great to legendary?