By Faraz T. Toor
If you read that a major European soccer team’s league title aspirations were dead by late February, their domestic cup season ended in December, they are on their third manager in less than a year, and their most hated rivals could end up winning every competition they were in, you would probably think this is some sort of sports drama script.
Well, the dramatic pain has certainly been in full force for Real Madrid this season.
Their weekend loss to Atlético Madrid at the Bernabéu not only put Real 12 points off first place in La Liga, but it encapsulated the humiliating season their supporters have seen. It was one of many painful chapters for Real since late May, aggravated only by the fact that the club they spent so much time and effort chasing down can win every competition this season.
Yes, Barcelona have ran circles around Madrid in multiple competitions since Los Blancos’ last trophy in 2014. First, there’s La Liga. Despite winning at Levante on Wednesday, Madrid sit in third place in the league, 12 points back of their first-place rivals.
Even if Barcelona were playing like humans on a soccer pitch, a dozen points would still be an insurmountable gap. The leaders in La Liga simply do not drop points often enough to allow a club to make a comeback of that magnitude in the table. Plus, Barcelona are kind of in the middle of an unbeaten streak that has lasted 35 consecutive games.
Another league title lost to Barcelona leaves Madrid particularly nauseous considering how much they’ve invested to catch them with few dividends. Since Messi debuted for the Barca first team in the 2004-2005 season, Real have won just three league titles compared to Barcelona’s seven. Even after spending nearly €200 million to bring in Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, the team has won only one league title since the 2007-2008 season.
Real’s latest major spending spree did help them secure a double in the 2013-2014 season, when they won the Copa del Rey and UEFA Champions League after they brought in Bale. But the super combination of Ronaldo, Bale, Karim Benzema, and later James Rodríguez has hardly been on the pitch together at the same time as often as the club would like, and it has won zero trophies since Madrid took the Club World Cup in 2014. The total for Barca since that last Real title? Five, with three more very possible in the next few months.
Madrid’s league season would not be nearly as painful if they could hang their hats on other competitions like they did in the double campaign, but, well, there was a bit of a snafu in December.
In terms of the ultimate embarrassment — you know, the kind you ask your spouse to hide from your children — for Real Madrid this season, their disqualification from the Copa del Rey has to be the most awkward of all.
For a club to not be able to move past the last 32 in a domestic cup competition when there is a canyon-sized gap between it and all but a few teams in the country — it leaves a most visible blemish on the season. Add on the fact that Madrid were knocked out because they played a suspended player, while Barcelona are going to play in the Copa del Rey final in May, and the blemish looks like a black eye.
Even the jubilation and hope of having club legend Zinedine Zidane take over the managerial duties has faded. Madrid went on a tear when he was appointed manager, winning six of their next seven games, and by a margin of 25-5, but they dropped points in two straight league matches after that — including to bottom-half-of-the-table Málaga in one game — to fall completely out of the La Liga title race.
No one is surprised that Madrid have once again, without any tolerance for failures, put massive hopes and expectations onto their manager, but it looks all the more absurd and painful in this season of numerous failures.
After winning four titles in 2014 under Carlo Ancelotti, one of the most decorated managers of all-time, Madrid decided to reward him by giving him the boot after the club went the next six months without a trophy.
Of course, not to be inconsistent, the next manager to go, Rafael Benítez — a man who has lead three teams to the summit of Europe and lost only three games at Madrid — was dismissed after just six months.
So here’s Real Madrid, on their third manager in less than a year — their fifth since 2009 — and they have earned seven trophies during that time, while Barcelona are on their fourth manager since 2009 — only one of whom was actually fired — and they have won 23 honors. And by the time May is over, the trophy count could be 5-0 in favor of Barcelona for the 2015-2016 season.
Real could almost numb all the pain of this season if they win the Champions League, of course. What better way to make critics and reactionary people forget about how the club crashed out of two domestic competitions than by winning their second Champions League in three years? Their managerial impatience would look prudent, their roster would seem better, and they may even be able to claim that they are building a European dynasty again.
But while Madrid look likely to move onto the quarterfinals of the Champions League and have been to the semifinals every year since 2011, Barcelona still loom. Despite having a comparable goal difference this season, the two clubs could not look any more different at the moment. The Catalans, like Real, are 2-0 up in their Round of 16 tie heading back home. But Barca are the only Champions League club that have been unbeaten for months.
Messi has picked up where he left off before his knee injury, notching 27 goals and ten assists in 24 appearances since he missed time, the club has won all but eight home games by multiple goals, and there are few holes outside of their defense.
Madrid have been super at home as well, scoring at least three goals in 12 home matches this season, but in six games against top-three clubs from Spain, Italy, and France, Real have won just twice, and lost 0-4 at the Bernabéu to Barca.
So if Madrid want to feel somewhat prideful about this season, yes, they need to win the biggest trophy of them all. If nothing else, another Champions League crown at the expense of PSG, Barca, Bayern Munich, Atlético, Chelsea, and Juventus would not only show that the sample size against the best teams in Europe has not done Real justice, but it would prevent their bitter rivals from having a go at one of the best two-season runs in soccer history. If not, Barca could claim more than ten trophies in two years and become the first club to repeat as UEFA Champions League winners, which would be the ultimate pain of all for Real Madrid.