What a time to be a Real Madrid fan. Having just ended a five-year wait for La Liga title, Zinedine Zidane’s side are now looking to become the first club in the Champions League era to defend the European Cup and the first Blancos team to win a Double of its kind since 1958.
Scepticism naturally overshadowed Zidane’s role in ‘La Undecima’ last season, the accusation being that Madrid’s players manage themselves, but Rafa Benitez put that theory to bed during his short and not-so-sweet reign. Furthermore, the Frenchman showed that he was the real deal over 38 games. Luck can only take you so far. Judging by their performances this season, it’s easy to see why they’re considered favourites over Juventus for the clash in Cardiff by reputable online sports betting operator – Sportingbet.
On paper, Madrid have possibly the most balanced first team in European football, as opposed to the most gifted. Keylor Navas has been doing all he can to deter Madrid from signing a ‘Galactico’ goalkeeper, protected in central defence by the athletic Raphael Varane and talismanic Sergio Ramos, nowadays more known for his dramatic late headers – one of which came in the 2014 Champions League Final.
In the full-back positions, Dani Carvajal is among the most reliable right-siders around, while on the opposing flank, Marcelo is the only player to have surpassed Alex Sandro in terms of performance, his infectious enthusiasm rivalled solely by Dani Alves.
Despite an abundance of ball-playing riches in the middle of the park, the first name on Madrid’s teamsheet is Casemiro, who has developed into one of Europe’s most complete midfield enforcers. The Brazilian provides the perfect foil for Luka Modric and Toni Kroos to unlock defences with their vision and showcase their extensive passing range.
Up top, the ‘BBC’ of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo are no longer indispensable. Bale’s injuries have certainly forced Zidane’s hand, but instead of the Coach opting to merely swap out the Welshman, they have allowed him to realise Isco’s potential of an elegant No 10. And that’s where Los Merengues’ key strength lies.
Whereas in the past, Madrid were confined to a 4-3-3 formation and lacked a discernible identity to their game, Zidane has earned the trust of his paymasters and subsequently commands full control of playing affairs. Indeed, he appears to have the Midas touch, with all his decisions – from resting Cristiano Ronaldo to changing tactics – proving inspired.
The result is the most resilient and cohesive Madrid team of the modern era. Even when the chips appear to be down, Ramos can pull a goal out of a last-ditch set-piece, Alvaro Morata can conjure up a winner from the substitutes’ bench and Ronaldo can silence his doubters with an explosive finish or three.
Zidane will have a full squad at his disposal on Saturday, leaving weaknesses in short supply. However, they have yet to face a defensive wall quite like Juve’s and may see more of the ball than they will like, given their most effective football has been in counter-attacking situations. To Madrid’s credit, they have finally conquered Atletico Madrid – a team with a similarly-steely underbelly – and may draw confidence from those exploits.
Furthermore, Ramos and Casemiro should be targeted by the Bianconeri. The pair were among La Liga’s worst offenders when it came to committing fouls last season, and despite Spanish referees not exactly being strict in their treatment of the defender and midfielder, such card-happy tendencies may be exposed on the biggest stage of all.
Whatever happens this weekend, Zidane was right. The two best teams of the past nine months are competing for the best prize.