How do you become the greatest? By first being able to gather and then strike. Real Madrid proved that more than ever in 2022. Houdini for the advanced.
And the award for dumbest supporter of the year goes to… the man who casually walks out of the Bernabéu stadium with his daughter on May 4, 2022. The second leg of the Champions League semi-final against Manchester City is almost over and in minute 89 it’s still 0-1 to go citizens, who won the first match 3-2. A hopeless situation? A reporter stops the man and says that Real have just scored 1-1 and if he no longer believes it? ‘No’, says the supporter, ‘I wanted to spare my daughter the grief of being eliminated. But’, he suddenly begins to have doubts, ‘of course we can still return.’ His words are barely cold as the stadium explodes behind him: Rodrygo has just headed in 2-1, extra time is a fact. The man jumps around like a man possessed and hugs his daughter. Then they storm back up the stairs of the stadium together, fists clenched.
What was wrong with that guy? Hadn’t he watched his own team’s previous Champions League matches? The miraculous comebacks against PSG and Chelsea? Each time it had already dug Real’s grave, but each time the team sent the diggers home. Most of the Royals’ matches in the knockout stages of the Champions League were something similar The rumble in the jungle, the legendary boxing match between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali in 1974. Ali willingly walked the ropes in the early rounds to take a series of sledgehammer blows from Foreman. Connoisseurs wondered not if but when Ali would take to the canvas. But in the eighth round, The Greatest suddenly struck himself and brought the giant from Texas to his knees. It is undoubtedly the most remarkable remontada ever in the sports world.
In an interview with the German ZDF in October, midfielder Toni Kroos also referred to the difficult moments: ‘Zidane always said: ‘We have to learn to suffer. If we can do that effortlessly, we have a good chance of winning.’ At this level, there will always be situations where you have to accept that you are a worse team than the opponent. In the first leg of the semi-final against Manchester City, we could easily have lost 10-1. But it was 4-3. When City went ahead 0-1 in the second leg, nobody gave us a crown. But we are always able to breathe new life, and then the stadium follows suit. If you can do it more than once, even a prestigious team like City’s will think: they don’t want to do it again…’
In the first leg of the semi-final against Manchester City, we could easily have lost 10-1. But it was 4-3.’
The statistics from the home game against Citizens speak for themselves (see box). Thibaut Courtois had eight saves on May 4 compared to just two for Ederson. Pep Guardiola appeared in front of the cameras after the game and summed it up like this: ‘The feeling you sometimes have in football – that you are ahead but that you are dominated – we didn’t have that here. It wasn’t like we were under siege. And then they scored once. And again a minute later. They have done that so many times before, so it could also happen to us.’
Because that was the great thing about Real in 2022: it did its Houdini act several times. Not only in the Champions League, but also in La Liga. It already started on the second matchday in Levante, where Karim Benzema and co fell behind twice, but still managed to draw 3-3. In the 85th minute, Vinícius jr equalized. Then there were also comebacks against Celta de Vigo, Valencia (1-2 win with goals in the 86th and 88th minutes), FC Sevilla…
That gave Carlo Ancelotti the idea to show the players a video of their eight (!) comebacks that season just before the second leg of the semi-final against Manchester City. So said Carletto: ‘And there is still one missing.’ It turned out to be the most magical of them all…
Even in the first league match of the 2022/23 season, Real continued their momentum. It fell 1-0 to UD Almería, but stepped off the field with a 1-2 victory. The eye of the needle has become a house specialty.
But on the eve of the 2021/22 season, few scriptwriters had foreseen this scenario. It already started with the appointment of Carlo Ancelotti, who came to replace a sour Zinedine Zidane. The Italian was labeled as a good-natured grandfather whose career was slowly fading. It had been since 2017 that he could win another prize – the title at Bayern Munich. By record master however, he was sidelined because his training methods were outdated and because he was too soft on the players. Ancelotti seemed passé, but when Massimiliano Allegri signed with Juventus and Mauricio Pochettino was not allowed to leave PSG, Florentino Pérez ended up with the man who had him in 2014 La Decima, the tenth victory in the Champions League. Eyebrows were raised: was this the coach to bring momentum back to a dressing room that had been squeezed like a lemon in previous seasons?
But if you add Real Madrid’s fourteen final victories in the European Cup I/Champions League, you come to the conclusion that the cup with the big ears was often won with a calm, collected coach along the royal sideline. Besides Ancelotti (2014), Miguel Muñoz (1960, 1966), Vicente del Bosque (2000, 2002) and Zinédine Zidane (2016, 2017, 2018) also fit that profile.
For example, during the 2021/22 season, Ancelotti brazenly admitted that Casemiro, Modric and Kroos sometimes do things he didn’t ask them to. “But the supporters can be calm,” said the Italian laconically. “I don’t want to get involved in that.” The 63-year-old coach also does not miss an opportunity to say that the work at Real is ‘easy’ for him. Sometimes he gives the impression that he has nothing to do but sit back and enjoy.
But that is dishonoring him. Because Carletto succeeded where its predecessors failed. He gave confidence and opportunities to the youth. Vinícius junior, Rodrygo, Federico Valverde… They all broke through under the approving brow of grandfather Carlos. And much to the delight of chairman Florentino Pérez, because he had already taken them for considerable sums at a young age.
In Ancelotti’s case, another important pawn had returned to Madrid in the summer of 2021: physical coach Antonio Pintus. In Zidane’s three victories in a row, it was also him who had set the troops on their feet. His importance in the victory on 28 May 2022 against Liverpool should therefore not be underestimated. The 60-year-old Italian, who still makes it a point to run nine kilometers every morning, is sometimes called ‘the twelfth man’ at Real. The fact that the Royals often managed to turn a game late in the matches is undoubtedly also his merit.
The summer of 2021 did not bring big names to Valdebebas either. The fifteenth episode of the series about Kylian Mbappé did not have a happy ending, it seemed to be a year of transition. Still, two new faces settled in Madrid: David Alaba joined on a free transfer from Bayern Munich and youngster Eduardo Camavinga was seen mainly as a reinforcement in width. Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane, the central duo who had guarded the fortress for years, looked elsewhere. The former because he had to leave, the latter because he wanted to leave. A big loss was foreseen, but it was not so bad: the new duo Alaba-Eder Militão was quickly hollowed out. Militão: another player who had been badly treated by Zidane in the past but got a pat on the head from Ancelotti.
Real’s typical winning culture was guarded by usual suspects: Karim Benzema, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Dani Carvajal know better than anyone what it means to play football for a club that sells scarves with the simple message: win. To win. They are ancient warriors who have survived countless battles and whose bones have an enviable resilience. Add to that some young talent and the best goalkeeper in the world and you are set to… suffer.