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Rahul Kalvapalle is a Madridista and football writer who has contributed to Four Four Two, Bleacher Report the Real Madrid podcast, Merengue Bites. In this review he recounts one of Real’s strangest seasons in recent years, from Benitez beginnings to a Zidane grandstand.
If I told you a year ago that Casemiro, Lucas Vasquez and Rafa Benitez would play key roles in defining Real Madrid’s 2015-16 campaign, you’d have told me to seek therapy. In hindsight, this is only fitting following what’s been a bizarre season at the Santiago Bernabeu, one punctuated with humiliation and hope, disenchantment and glory.
Real Madrid endured a trophy-less 2014-15, but it was hardly a catastrophe as the team finished two points behind Barcelona in La Liga, and made the Champions League semi-finals. The squad looked harmonious and only in need of a couple of changes, and Ancelotti remained popular among the players and fan-base.
But Florentino Perez in his infinite wisdom felt the team needed a more stern man at the helm, and decided to replace affable Ancelotti with brusque Benitez. He then made the correct decision to part ways with Iker Casillas, even though the manner of the departure was shockingly poorly handled given Casillas’ stature and contributions to the club over the course of his career. Perez then decided that Madrid needed a Galactico goalkeeper to replace the outgoing captain, and missed out on signing David De Gea by a whisker – and by whisker, I mean a working fax machine.
Back to Benitez. Like pretty much every other Madridista, I was completely opposed to the appointment of the rotund Spaniard, a coach whose tactical approach over the course of his career is far-removed from the Bernabeu faithful’s expectations, and whose cold approach to man-management looked certain to land him in a collision course with Real Madrid’s ego-laden dressing room.
Still, I was quietly optimistic. I figured that while Benitez may not be likeable, he isn’t stupid. He was a Real Madrid fan growing up, played for the youth teams and coached a certain Raul Gonzalez when he was but a wee lad playing in the 2nd division with Real Madrid B. Benitez had dreamed of coaching Real Madrid all his life, and shed genuine tears at his unveiling as coach. He would be smart enough to alter his coaching style to suit the Bernabeu faithful’s expectations and establish a good relationship with players with personalities bigger and more complicated than he ever encountered in the dressing rooms at the Mestalla, Anfield, San Siro and San Paolo.
Or so I thought.
Benitez began ruffling feathers as early as September, refusing to recognize Cristiano Ronaldo as the best player in the world. This is an obvious faux pas at Real Madrid, and was a face-palm moment that he could have evaded with a bit of common sense and diplomacy. Things weren’t off to a good start.
On the pitch, Real Madrid kicked off their league campaign with a disappointing goal-less draw at newly promoted Sporting Gijon. The team then recovered with four consecutive wins in which they plundered 14 goals and conceded only one. Despite rumblings of discontent from the dressing room and the fan-base, things seemed to be going fairly well. Real Madrid even briefly assumed top spot in the table on goal difference, although this didn’t come to last as the team suffered consecutive defeats to Sevilla and Barcelona. They wouldn’t see the top of the table again.
There’s no shame in losing to Barcelona, but a 0-4 thrashing at home is a different matter. Benitez’s line-up looked like it was selected by Florentino Perez, laden with attacking stars and completely lacking in balance. Andres Iniesta made the Bernabeu his personal playground, as the Catalans raced to a 0-3 lead even before Messi entered the fray as a substitute.
That the biggest cheer of the night was elicited by a sending-off – that of Isco for a nasty lunge on Neymar – summed up the evening. It was as if the Bernabeu faithful were recognizing the diminutive playmaker for channelling their collective anger and frustration at the despondent performance.
Madridistas could have been forgiven that the worst was behind them at this point, but they were proven wrong by the Cheryshev-Cadiz Copa Catastrophe.
Somehow, nobody at Real Madrid was aware that canterano Denis Cheryshev was ineligible to play in the Copa Del Rey as the result of a suspension picked up last season whilst on loan at Villarreal. The speedy Russian either forgot or chose not to speak up, happy to enjoy some rare minutes. He even managed to open the scoring barely four minutes in, before Benitez and company realized their folly and subbed him out less than a minute into the 2nd half.
Real Madrid went on to be dumped out of the Copa Del Rey for their infraction, a brutally embarrassing episode and the last thing the club needed after their 0-4 Clasico humiliation.
Things then went from embarrassing to downright weird, as Real Madrid hammered Rayo Vallecano 10-2 at the Santiago Bernabeu in a strange atmosphere and under bizarre circumstances.
Benitez was under severe pressure coming into the game, and felt the full force of the Bernabeu’s wrath as Madrid found themselves 1-2 down before a quarter of an hour. However, Los Merengues took advantage of two sendings-off to reverse 1-2 to 10-2. But the Bernabeu fans are a football-savvy bunch, and weren’t going to let a lopsided scoreline paper over their disdain. Meanwhile, the pundits unfairly criticized Real Madrid for doling out excessive punishment to their locally based minnows.
Even when Benitez won, he lost.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was a disappointing 2-2 draw to Gary Neville’s Valencia in early January, and Benitez got the sack. The gruff, defensive Spaniard was replaced by the calming, charismatic presence of club legend Zinedine Zidane.
While Zidane was always going to become coach of Real Madrid at some point, his appointment came earlier than anyone, himself included, would have expected. The players didn’t hide their delight at being able to wave adios to Benitez and work with the popular Zidane. But for the fans, this was very much a step into the unknown, albeit one that felt unexplainably good.
An easy run of fixtures allowed Zidane to get into the groove, as the team chalked up a 17-2 goal difference over their four remaining fixtures in January. February saw the return of the Champions League, and Real Madrid easily beat AS Roma 2-0 away before repeating the score-line at home a few weeks later.
In between those two 2-0 victories over the Romans, Real Madrid suffered a disappointing 0-1 loss to Atletico Madrid that prompted Zidane to make his most crucial alteration to the starting line-up. It was time for some defensive steel in midfield. It was time for Casemiro.
The combative Brazilian’s introduction gave the team some much-needed balance. Here was a player who revelled in the dirty work, and wasn’t a massive liability on the ball – even if he didn’t have Isco’s possession-holding skills or James’ ability to pick a pass. Over the rest of the season, Casemiro’s presence and his acceptance of his own limitations freed up Modric and Kroos to focus more of their time and energies on dictating their team’s play and tempo.
And so Real Madrid looked balanced and confident going into the two league fixtures that had hurt them so badly in the first go-round – Sevilla and Barcelona. Sevilla were dispatched 4-0 at the Bernabeu, while Barcelona were handed a 1-2 defeat on their home patch.
It was no 4-0, but it was a deserved victory punctuated by fine performances from Bale, Casemiro and the consistently spectacular Luka Modric. Barcelona went on to lose their two following games, as their once mighty 10-point lead over Real Madrid fast whittled away.
However, Zidane’s charges managed to make things needlessly tense, losing 0-2 away to Wolfsburg in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals. It was an abject performance, and one that was totally unexpected following the morale-boosting Clasico victory. Thankfully, a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick secured a 3-2 aggregate comeback.
Back when Real Madrid were struggling under Rafa Benitez, I had an illogical premonition that Los Merengues would unexpectedly stumble into the Champions League final without ever really impressing, and that’s exactly what ended up happening.
In what was far from a European epic, Real Madrid defeated Manchester City 1-0 on aggregate in the semi-finals by virtue of a Fernando own goal in the 2nd leg.
Already, one could hear rumblings of discontent from Cules and others over Real Madrid’s easy passage to the Champions League final. However, this was the same Manchester City side that had disposed of PSG in the quarter-finals, at a time when most people had the French giants pencilled in for the semis.
Sergio Ramos, who recovered his form following a disastrous few months, and Pepe, who would go on to embarrass himself in the final with his antics, did a fine job in the semi-finals and completely neutralized Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne.
Ultimately, you can only play the opponent that’s put in front of you. Despite not putting in a truly world-class performance in the Champions League, Real Madrid found themselves in the final versus Atletico Madrid for the second time in three seasons.
The side continued to rack up wins in La Liga, ending the season with 12 victories on the bounce following that 0-1 reverse to Atletico. Unfortunately, Barcelona recovered from their bout of Madriditis and managed to hold on to top spot by a single point to claim a deserved league title to go with their Copa Del Rey triumph.
Real Madrid seemed confident and in tune going into the Champions League final. Unlike two years previously, Cristiano Ronaldo looked fit and in good form going into a two-week rest period preceding the game. Keylor Navas was secure in goal, the backline looked focused, the midfield balanced with Casemiro and the front three – perhaps barring Benzema – in dangerous form. Atletico had another wonderful season but hadn’t been quite as defensively stingy as two seasons ago. Personally, I felt far more confident going into this final than in 2014.
Things got off to a good start as Real Madrid dominated the early proceedings, and took the lead through Sergio Ramos (who else?). However, Atletico recovered well and got a golden chance to equalize from the spot after Torres used all his guile to win a penalty off Pepe minutes into the 2nd half. But Antoine Griezmann was unable to deliver, and it looked like it was Real Madrid’s night.
Atletico pressed on, however, and ultimately got the equalizer their play deserved, substitute Yannick Carrasco – who gave fellow substitute Danilo a very hard time – finding the net following an excellent volleyed cross from Juanfran.
Things looked difficult at this point. Minutes before the equalizer, Zidane surprised everyone by taking off the excellent Toni Kroos for Isco. Perhaps the German was tired, or maybe Zidane felt that Isco’s excellent ability to hold on to the ball would enable him to act as a pressure relief valve and help the defenders regain shape, and their breath.
For the second time in three seasons, Sergio Ramos made a telling contribution in the 93rd minute, this time with a considered tactical foul that prevented an ominous-looking Atletico counter-attack. The score line was to read a fair 1-1 at the final whistle.
Extra-time proceeded as it often does, with furious spells of heart-stopping activity alternating with periods of near-walking pace play. Both teams had chances but failed to take them. A penalty shoot-out would decide if this would be La Undecima or La Primera.
Lucas Vasquez, who had injected some much-needed energy into proceedings after coming on as a second-half substitute, showed impressive confidence in signing up to take the first kick. The youth team product took the long walk to the spot, spinning the ball on his finger like a child. His kick was impeccable, passed to the left of the static Oblak. Vasquez went nuts, roaring at the Madridistas behind the goal and slapping the crest on his chest.
Antoine Griezmann didn’t miss this time around, and Marcelo stepped up to slot Madrid’s second and put the pressure back on Atletico. Their captain Gabi – who had had an excellent game in defence and attack – rounded off his contribution with a powerful penalty. Gareth Bale, Saul Niguez and Sergio Ramos all scored with utmost confidence.
Up stepped Juanfran. The right-back came up in Real Madrid’s youth system and even made a few appearances for the first team in the early 2000s alongside Zidane, before he was let go and eventually found his place at Atletico Madrid. He had had an excellent game, rounded off by his assist for Carrasco’s equalizer. But his side-footed penalty a couple of inches wide, and rattled the post. Even if it had been on target, Keylor Navas had it well covered.
Cristiano Ronaldo, who had one of his worst games in a Real Madrid jersey, found himself with the chance to end things on a good note. The ball was struck, the net bulged and off came the aforementioned jersey. La Undecima was won.
Did Real Madrid deserve to win the final? The answer is yes, because they did what needed to be done to win, if only just.
It was a glorious end to a difficult and strange season. Real Madrid never put in a truly complete, world-class performance over the course of the campaign but still managed to win the Champions League, and finish a single point behind league winners Barcelona.
Zinedine Zidane’s role in the triumph cannot be understated. The Frenchman made the bold decision to leave an €80 million play-maker on the bench and replace him with an unheralded defensive midfielder. It’s true that Benitez would have been given a much rougher time by the media and fans if he made the same call, but this only serves to underline the importance of personality and charisma in a Real Madrid coach.
Zidane’s aura and his calm demeanour ensured that players, fans and media were kept onside at all times, making for a focused and confident atmosphere that ultimately resulted in a Champions League triumph despite a season littered with abject performances on the field and farcical events off it.
Real Madrid’s 2015-16 campaign is perhaps best summed up by Cristiano Ronaldo, who uttered these prescient words after his heroic and timely hat-trick against Wolfsburg.
“All in all, it’s not bad for a ‘poor’ season.”