Familiar ground. Real Madrid are struggling domestically. They didn’t come close to winning the Copa del Rey, and they’ve lost the league title to Barcelona. Actually, Atlético Madrid lost it to Barcelona; Madrid are even further behind. They have a charismatic yet tactically challenged manager who doesn’t rotate enough despite having the deepest squad in Europe. He’s probably going to get fired or forced out in the summer. Cristiano Ronaldo is on the decline. He’s a left winger in name only at this point, and not even a great striker in a lot of games. He’s in and out of form, but typically delivers when it counts, popping up in almost every important match twice—once to head home, another time to hit the ball into the net from twenty yards out or some absurd angle, right when his team needs it. Real Madrid aren’t great. They have their problems. They have a good chance to win the Champions League again.
Three years ago, Madrid fired Carlo Ancelotti, over the protests of his players, because he tossed his stars onto the pitch every game and told them, in Redknappian parlance, to run around a bit. That’s glib, but basically true. Then Madrid hired Rafa Benitez, a genius tactician if a slightly uncharismatic one, and the players immediately hated him, mocked him, called him The Number 10 for how often he, a tubby then-55-year-old man, demonstrated things for them in training. Benitez told Ronaldo to press, and Marcelo to be more disciplined on the left flank, and started Isco—Isco!—over Gareth Bale. He didn’t last long. Florentino Perez brought in Zinedine Zidane midseason, who had been managing the B team but is also Zinedine Zidane and so figuratively, had already been managing at the highest level. It’s all worked out pretty well since then: two Champions League titles, one Liga, a bunch of other ancillary silverware
This might be the season that brings about radical change. That’s not a bad thing so much as a typical one at Madrid. Managers don’t last a long time. The roster turns over. Perez has hundreds of millions of euros available, which he can spend on whomever he wants because basically everybody in the world wants to play for Real Madrid. It wouldn’t be surprising if Karim Benzema is replaced next year with Harry Kane or Robert Lewandowski, if Keylor Navas is swapped out for David De Gea or Gigi Donnarumma. Zidane might be done; the signs of strain are there. They can bring in basically anybody except Pep Guardiola or Diego Simeone to replace him.
But what Real Madrid will be in the near future is permanently conditional. Every summer can potentially mark a seismic shift. At the moment they’re up 2-1 on Bayern Munich heading back to the Bernabéu, where they’ve taken care of Manchester City and Atlético Madrid and, um, Bayern Munich over the past few years in European competition. It’s not that Bayern can’t beat Madrid on their home ground, but Los Blancos are certainly favorites with a one-goal lead in the tie.
There are specific things—Benzema has fallen off hard, Luka Modrić isn’t having his best season—but in the end, it doesn’t merely seem like the year concludes like this for Real Madrid. It’s a fact: this is seven straight Champions League semifinals for them, in the competition they prioritize over any other. This sounds like a slight, a kind of Extras gag, but it’s true that in wanting to be the biggest club in the world, which is their aim, Real Madrid succeed because they come up big in the biggest tournament in the world, season after season. They could lose 3-0 to Bayern on Tuesday and still point to the scoreboard. Twelve European titles. Milan are in second place with seven. Bayern have five.
Immensity is a hard thing to write about. It’s communicated well in film: Godzilla, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings. What Real Madrid have is a kind of impossible psychic immensity. Which is a strange thing to confront because, in the end, they are just a team of really good players, playing well when it matters. Ronaldo may be a living statue and will, in a few decades’ time, take on the air of a god like Pelé or Sόrates, but he’s just a person—absurdly gifted and hard-working, yet ultimately a guy. Marco Asensio hasn’t yet acquired a mystique and is at times Madrid’s best player. Sergio Ramos is a meme, more or less, with his late-game headers and predilection for unnecessary cards. What do you say about Real Madrid that hasn’t already been said enough times to scan as true, even if it isn’t?
Well, here’s this: Madrid head into their game against Bayern Munich up 2-1, by the grace of a great goal by Marcelo and a horrid one given away by Rafinha. They’re favorites to make another Champions League final. They’re beatable, sure. But when you go up against them—I’m positive this a real thing—you feel as if you’re going upstream against history and the way the universe would prefer to be. Perhaps Bayern feel that or perhaps they don’t. Franck Ribery doesn’t give the impression that he cares much about anything except beating the other team’s right back. But Real Madrid blend together what’s real and what’s legend. Hell, they use it to their advantage.