The level of competition in football has changed in the last 60 years. At the European level, it was commonplace to have one team dominate for years on end.
Real Madrid won the European Cup five years in a row in the late 1950s. Ajax and Bayern Munich were each victorious three times in as many years during the 1970s.
Times are different nowadays. Not since 1990 had a team won Europe’s premier competition back to back until Real Madrid conquered Juventus in Cardiff last year.
It is a testament to the quality of Los Blancos that they are now seeking to make it a hat trick of Champions League trophies in Kiev later this year. With all the investment in the modern game and the level of their opponents across the continent, this achievement is made all the more impressive.
Real Madrid’s league season is all but finished. Their eternal rivals Barcelona are 15 points above them in the table and are cruising to the La Liga title.
Meanwhile, Champions League qualification is assured as they have a 13 point lead over fifth-placed Villarreal. All that remains now is the pride of attempting to finish over city rivals Atletico Madrid.
While this is not the situation Real Madrid fans wish to be in, it allows Zinedine Zidane to better manage his resources with the latter stages of the Champions league approaching.
Critics were writing off the Champions League’s greatest ever goalscorer at the beginning of this campaign.
After 14 league games, Cristiano Ronaldo had just four goals to his name. Those who claimed the Portuguese was declining in his career were quickly proven wrong, though, as Ronaldo went on to net 18 times in his next nine league games.
His domestic form has drastically improved in the last two months, but Ronaldo’s Champions League performance was never in doubt. He has scored in each one of his appearances in the competition and does not look like slowing down.
Even when Ronaldo is in a low-scoring period, as in late 2017, he always maintains his ability to produce the goods on the biggest stage. His goal drought in La Liga coincided with the group stages of the Champions League where he scored home and away against the likes of Borussia Dortmund and Tottenham.
He typically gets even better in the knockout stages of the competition too. In last year’s edition, Ronaldo scored 10 goals just from the quarterfinal onwards against European titans like Bayern Munich, Atlético Madrid and Juventus. This season, PSG have already suffered at his hands, conceding three to the ex-Manchester United man.
With the Portuguese such a reliable goalscorer against the best teams in the world, Real Madrid can be certain that he will not let them down when it matters.
Ronaldo’s consistency at this level is heavily supported by his self belief, having claimed he is “the best player in history” following his fifth Ballon d’Or win in December. This feeling of confidence is echoed throughout the Real Madrid team, who continue to prove their doubters wrong.
The character in the team is such that they are never beaten until the final whistle is blown. In their 2014 Champions League final against Atletico, Diego Godín’s opening goal had looked to be enough to secure his club’s first ever European Cup, but in the dying seconds of the match, Sergio Ramos scored the equaliser to bring the game to extra time, when Real Madrid eventually rolled over their city rivals.
Similarly, in the 2016 Super Cup final, another Ramos injury time equaliser allowed Los Blancos to take the game into extra time when they once again clinched victory. For the teams facing them, it is an inescapable fact; you are never home and dry against Real Madrid, even when they are not playing at their best, an equaliser or winning goal is on the cards.
The Real deal
Real Madrid have not been dealt the best hand so far in the Champions League.
Their group was dubbed the group of death by many onlookers, and Zidane’s team could only muster a second-placed finish behind Tottenham.
This resulted in their Round of 16 tie against favourites PSG, who had set a record for the number of goals scored in the first stage of the competition.
Real Madrid, though, seem to shine when facing the best opposition. Barring the first half of the match at the Santiago Bernabeu when Adrien Rabiot put PSG ahead in the tie, Ronaldo and Co. never looked worried about elimination by the Parisians.
When they travel to Turin on Tuesday 3rd April, they will play with no fear, and will look to take something back to Madrid for the second leg.
Real Madrid are the most successful team in Champions League history though they are not a team who are satisfied to ride off their past victories.
The hunger that this team shows in European competition has allowed them to become one of the most dominant squads in recent times. They may be suffering domestically this year, but Real Madrid have plenty of fight left for continental competition.
A club of their pedigree want to be fighting for Europe’s premier trophy every season, and this year is no different. Zidane could manage the first team in over 40 years to win the European Cup three years consecutively.
It is a real possibility he will write himself even deeper into Real Madrid folklore on 26th May this year.