In the build-up to the UEFA Champions League Final of 2017, many had already decided that Juventus, arguably the best all-round team at the time, were firm favourites to conquer the then-holders, Real Madrid.
The belief was that Massimiliano Allegri’s men were hardened Italian steel, devoid of any flaws, and ready to topple Europe’s greatest team. With the likes of Paulo Dybala, Giorgio Chiellini and Gigi Buffon, this would have felt like their best chance.
In Cristiano Ronaldo’s world, this was never the case. From the onset, he set up his stall to shake up Juventus’ cage and rattle their nerves, a central figure in their 4-1 demolition job in Cardiff with two goals. What had become a genuine threat to their supremacy quickly became a mere afterthought.
This was Madrid under Ronaldo’s wing, unnerved by any challenge before them. They knew that with him on their side, victory was much more certain, the motivation being Ronaldo’s relentless winning attitude.
“From the onset, he set up his stall to shake up Juventus’ cage and rattle their nerves, a central figure in their 4-1 demolition job in Cardiff with two goals.”
At the moment, Madrid are not very good. Lying in third place, ten points behind Barcelona and struggling to find their spark, it is only a matter of time before the entire hierarchy is put into question. This version of Madrid is not an exciting one to be a part of.
The 4-2 win at Espanyol in their latest fixture reminded us that Karim Benzema has all the qualities that a top centre forward should have, scoring twice – the second goal was particularly pleasing – and that Gareth Bale still plays football.
Here, seven of the players that started in that final in 2017 were present from the beginning. Six of them started the Champions League final of 2016. Has familiarity bred an unwanted knack of complacency amongst this golden generation?
There seems to be a rock firmly wedged in those usually smooth Los Blancos grooves that is stopping them from moving forward.
The over-reliance on one man has been put into sharp focus in their matches so far. Julen Lopetegui had the first shot at a Ronaldo-less team, with a mixed bag of results from the worrying defeat to Sevilla, to the humbling – and ultimately fatal – embarrassment at the Nou Camp. Santiago Solari started with four wins, but was brought firmly back down to earth with a smack from Eibar’s 3-0 whipping.
The wider point here lies in Madrid’s inability to move on from Ronaldo’s brilliance, as if to admit that his success was their success.
Two La Liga and Copa del Rey triumphs, as well as the four Champions League successes in his nine years point to a seemingly successful period in Madrid’s long-standing history, but too much of it may have been down to one man.
Like a poisoned chalice, Ronaldo’s success has left an eerie, ghostly mark on Madrid’s usually commanding style.
He has been a key figure in Juventus’ stranglehold of Serie A this season, scoring 15 goals in 21 appearances so far as they raced to an 11-point lead after their win at Lazio.
You can sense that Juventus understand how important he could be to their season, but have incorporated him in a way that doesn’t seem over-reliant.
Madrid’s situation has become a complex web of mixed signals and uncertain times ahead, and good players made to look far from their best in an environment that has not helped their cause.
Those that had a keen eye for Madrid’s operation would know that in the grand scheme of things, Ronaldo was the central figure. Many times, Zinedine Zidane set up the team to support his qualities.
Benzema played as an apprentice to the Cristiano juggernaut, and now has the job of being the central figure for goals – a man who has scored 14 goals in his last 52 league matches. Bale’s injuries have hampered his progress to the next level, and is 30 years old in July.
Florentino Pérez’s fixation with his Galactico model has seen the club being linked with players such as Neymar Jr. and Eden Hazard, at a time when all is not right at the Santiago Bernabéu.
The atmosphere is one of bated breath and inquisitive minds, waiting for Zidane to come back and save their blushes – it must have been confusing to see him leave in the first place at the peak of his powers. This should have been one of the more worrying signs.
Where do Madrid go from here? The league title seems to have escaped their grasp yet again. The saving grace of winning the Champions League will not be as easy to lean on as before with the quality of the other teams in the Round of 16.
It is imperative that Madrid find their focus for the period to come. Ronaldo has found his feet at Juventus, Madrid’s starry but dimming lights firmly in the distance, and seems to have taken the the change of scenery quite well. When will Madrid also follow suit?