The empire collapses

AND SO, the end of a remarkable run, four UEFA Champions League titles in five years. For most of the current season, the signs of Real Madrid’s decline have been evident in Spain, a lack lustre domestic campaign that has seen them dispose of two coaches and bring back Zinedine Zidane, an indication that Real, like so many clubs, seek the security of a comfort blanket when times are tough.

Real’s Champions League exit, naturally, triggered a fair degree of schadenfreudewith one of the headlines calling the club’s defeats in league, cup and Champions League, the Semana Tragica– week of tragedy.

This Real team, with its impressive European record, has received few plaudits, largely because it is a triumph of power rather than an influential period driven by the champion club. There’s no ideology behind it, just a very good return on investment.  It hasn’t made them the best team in Spain, but it has made them experts at slaloming their way through the Champions League.

It’s over now and this should signal the start of a rebuilding period, perhaps beginning with the signing of Eden Hazard and/or Harry Kane. The fact is, Real have not compensated for the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo, whose goals and presence have symbolised the club’s domination of the Champions League. CR7 scored 43% of Real’s goals in their four titles – how they have missed him since he defected to Juve, if only for the talismanic effect.

Real’s golden period represents one of the best in European Cup/Champions League history. Aside from the Real quintet of trophies between 1956 and 1960, it is arguably the most successful run. They matched Ajax and Bayern Munich’s hat-tricks in the 1970s and bettered the sequence of silverware enjoyed by Benfica, Inter Milan, Liverpool and AC Milan in the 60s, 70s and late 80s. Yet the pundits and historians have been muted in their praise. How long will it be before they get tagged a “one man band”?

Serial winners and their demise

  No. of consec. titles Years Ended Stage By
Real Madrid 5 1956-1960 November 1960 R1 Barcelona (4-3 on aggregate)
Ajax Amsterdam 3 1971-1973 November 1973 R2 CSKA Sofia (3-2 on aggregate)
Bayern Munich 3 1974-1976 March 1977 QF Dynamo Kyiv (2-1 on aggregate)
Real Madrid 3 2016-2018 March 2019 R16 Ajax (5-3 on aggregate)

Cristiano Ronaldo was made for the Champions League and his 105 goals in 101 games in Real’s  four titles  underlines how he could rise to the occasion. He secured just two La Liga titles with Real Madrid – 2012 and 2017 – but lifted twice as many Champions League crowns. It is remarkable that Real have won just six La Ligas in the past 20 years.

But their exit in the round of 16, their earliest departure for the best part of a decade, was only the sixth occasion the holders have gone out before the quarter-finals since the competition became the Champions League. It’s the worst defence since Chelsea capitulated in their group in 2012-13.

Real’s demise leaves the door open for a new champion club, but it would seem unlikely, at this stage, that we are entering a new era of dominance. Barcelona and Bayern Munich are not as good as they were, Paris Saint-Germain are still trying to convince Europe – and themselves – that they can be European champions, Juventus look like they are going out in the round of 16, Manchester United, despite overturning a 2-0 deficit, are not the finished article and Ajax, Real’s conquerors, will most likely be a team that feeds the rest of Europe with outstanding young talent.  The way may be clear for Manchester City to take their “project” to the next level.

But what of that fledgling Ajax Amsterdam side that ripped Real apart at the Bernabéu Stadium? It’s a potentially exciting line-up and one that is certainly goal-happy. Four goals in Spain is one thing, but their recent Eredivisie form underlines their fire power – 6-0 against Venlo, 5-0 v Breda, 5-1 v Den Haag and a 4-0 win against Fortuna Sittard. Ajax, according to CIES Football Observatory, have the best shots-on-target rate across Europe, 50.4%, which demonstrates their commitment to attacking football.

Ajax’s victory was unexpected, but they have not had an easy path in the competition – their group included Bayern Munich and Benfica but they came through unbeaten in six games.  It’s good to see them in the quarter-finals, but their team – with around half a dozen players from the Jong Ajax set-up, will most likely have dozens of scouts descend upon it in the coming months. We saw what hcan happen when a young team from outside the bulge bracket starts to make an impact when Monaco won Ligue 1 two seasons ago. One-by-one, the team was exported to clubs with more cachet and clout.

Ajax are a club that needs to consistently sell players into the market for revenue generation reasons, the big challenge will be to retain enough talent so the club can enjoy the fruits of their system for at least a year or so.  They are in the KNVB final this season, but probably won’t win the Eredivisie as they are chasing PSV Eindhoven, although they have a game in hand. They play host to PSV on March 31.

Skipper Matthijs de Ligt is just 19 and has been linked to a number of major clubs. Frenkie de Jong (21), has already been sold to Barcelona for next season, and he’s so highly-rated that the fee could rise to almost EUR 90 million. Another player who caught the eye in Madrid was Donny van de Beek, a 21 year-old midfielder.

There’s a really important aspect to Ajax’s win that gives some hope for the future. The polarisation of football in Europe has excluded some of the game’s historic big names – Ajax are one of those clubs. With Real’s enormous wealth, Ajax went into the tie very much as underdogs and the Dutch league is considered to be relatively weak compared to La Liga. Shock results are not supposed to happen in the Champions League, the structure and seeding make it nigh on impossible for a minnow (if that’s what Ajax are) to unseat one of the giants of the game. It happened in Madrid and restored some faith in a tale of the unexpected. But don’t weep for Real Madrid, they’ll be back soon and they’ve got the muscle to rebuild. Like some of their rivals, they’ve demonstrated that taking your eye off the ball can be costly.

Photo: PA



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