There is a train of thought – particularly prominent among Barcelona fans – that Real Madrid are in the Champions League semi-finals and three points clear at the top of La Liga not because they deserve it, but because they are lucky.
It’s quite easy to build a case to support that argument, with abundant evidence available as recently as their last two games.
Last weekend, for instance, they were only able to preserve their La Liga advantage over Barca ahead of Sunday’s Clasico thanks to Isco’s winning goal at Sporting Gijon with just five seconds of normal time remaining.
And then, of course, there was Tuesday’s dramatic European adventure against Bayern Munich, which saw Los Blancos advance courtesy of two offside goals in extra time from Cristiano Ronaldo and a highly dubious red card to visiting midfielder Arturo Vidal.
Those two games are only the most recent of several examples of fortune favouring the men from the Bernabeu, who appear to have thrown down so many ‘get out of jail free’ cards this season that manager Zinedine Zidane has regularly been asked whether his team are actually any good, or just lucky.
Naturally, Zidane has rejected such suggestions, offering the old cliche that you make your own luck in this game.
That’s not entirely true because every game contains random bounces of the ball and every team is affected by erroneous refereeing decisions and badly-timed injuries. There is such a thing as luck, and it can benefit some teams more than others.
Zidane: In football there's no such thing as luck. We won the first and second leg against Bayern. We deserved to go through.— SB (@Realmadridplace) April 18, 2017
However, that does not mean Madrid are only competing for a domestic and European double because they are fortunate. In fact, Zidane is largely correct to say that his team should be fully rather than begrudgingly credited for their achievements, because you only get the rub of the green if you put yourself in the right position.
As another cliche goes, if you don’t buy a ticket you won’t win the raffle – and Madrid’s combination of talent and attitude has allowed them to buy more of those metaphorical tickets than anyone else.
Last weekend, for example, Isco would not have scored his winner at Sporting Gijon if his team had not been pushing so hard for a goal.
Looking objectively at the closing stages of that game, it was unsurprising that Madrid found a breakthrough having spent the last 15 minutes more or less permanently camped on the edge of Sporting’s penalty area. A goal was a matter of time, not luck.
Then there’s Sergio Ramos’s habit of popping up with crucial late goals from set-pieces, just as he did to secure a point in the Clasico at Camp Nou in December. “Lucky Madrid!” complain the detractors. “Ramos rescued them again!”
In fact, though, Ramos would not be able to score such goals unless, as they were in Gijon last weekend, his team was on the attack, putting themselves in the position to win corners and free-kicks in the first place.
Ramos’s last set-piece goal was actually ruled out for offside [you see, some decisions do go against them] in stoppage time of the Champions League semi-final first leg at Bayern.
And fascinating television footage showing exactly how that disallowed goal was concocted illustrated just how much work Madrid put into their set-pieces.
The cameras tracked Ramos from the moment the set-piece was won, showing him hatching a plan in whispering tones with Marco Asensio and Nacho. Then Ramos sneakily initiated a high-five with Bayern defender Jerome Boateng, allowing his team-mates to know that this was their ‘target’, before gesturing to taker Toni Kroos to get him up to speed.
As they awaited delivery, Ramos, Asensio and Nacho maintained eye contact to ensure their positioning was right, and when the ball finally came across Asensio and Nacho leapt straight into the path of Boateng, blocking him off and creating a free header for Ramos.
Although they were foiled by an offside flag, the plan was brilliantly executed and obviously repeatedly rehearsed on the training ground. It was preparation, not luck, and that kind of attention to detail has been separating Madrid from their rivals all season.
If it happens again on Sunday night, don’t be surprised – and don’t call it luck.