Real Madrid’s La Liga title success – ending their five-year wait for domestic supremacy – is well deserved and has its foundations in a wonderful depth of talent, with two world-class players in practically every position.
That has allowed coach Zinedine Zidane to rest and rotate his squad and deal with injuries, chopping and changing his team on an almost weekly basis without suffering a significant drop-off in quality – in stark contrast to Barcelona, who have been a much weaker team whenever their first-choice stars are left out.
Madrid do possess a well-established ‘Gala XI’, a firm hierarchy of stars who are pretty much guaranteed to play the big games, and the only real selection question facing Zidane ahead of the Champions League final is whether Gareth Bale should play ahead of Isco if the Welshman is fully fit after his latest spell on the sidelines.
However, a quick look at the team’s league statistics for the season makes it abundantly obvious that Real Madrid’s success has been achieved by far more than just the superstars.
Behind Cristiano Ronaldo (25), their leading scorer has been Alvaro Morata (15), who outgunned Karim Benzema (11) after playing almost 600 fewer minutes than the Frenchman, while Isco also reached double figures despite spending most of the season as a back-up.
Their fourth-highest assister, behind Toni Kroos (12), Marcelo (10) and Isco (8) was another fringe player in Lucas Vazquez (7), while James Rodriguez mustered an impressive yield from his occasional outings, scoring eight goals and assisting six more.
And in defence, the player with the second-highest number of minutes behind captain Sergio Ramos (2,489) was perennial understudy Nacho (2,302), who played in every position across the back-four and has arguably been the team’s most consistent player.
So whereas Barcelona were reliant upon their MSN strike force for nearly everything, Madrid’s BBC were backed up by a much stronger supporting cast and their triumph is very much a team effort.
That strong group ethic was perhaps best encapsulated by Madrid’s opening goal in the 4-1 victory over Sevilla in their final home game of the season.
When a free-kick was awarded on the edge of the penalty area, there were plenty of candidates to take it. Cristiano Ronaldo would have been the most obvious, of course, but James, Kroos, Ramos and even Marco Asensio presented other options.
The last thing anyone would have expected was Nacho to be the man who stepped up and stroked it home, and the most notable thing about his piece of quick-thinking was that – surrounded by a galaxy of attacking stars – he was sufficiently confident of his status in the team to even attempt it.
There’s little chance that Sergi Roberto, for example, would even contemplate taking a free-kick for Barcelona if Lionel Messi was standing over the ball, and the fact that every member of Madrid’s squad is in a position to make a significant contribution has been a major difference between the top two.
It’s also a major turnaround, because the exact opposite used to be true. A couple of years ago, Ronaldo insisted on playing every single minute of every single game, taking every single free-kick and being at the centre of every piece of action, while Barca’s more collective team structure allowed them to hoover up trophy after trophy.
The credit for that transformation must chiefly go to Zidane, who has been remarkably successful since making his first foray into senior management 18 months ago.
Zidane is not a master tactician. Unlike hipster favourites such as Jorge Sampaoli, Diego Simeone and Pep Guardiola, his strategy is pretty straightforward, with a variation between 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 formations about as complex as his tactics get.
But he is a masterful man manager, with the respect he earned from his magnificent playing career combining with his relaxed, in-control manner to create an atmosphere of harmony and collective empathy which is incredibly difficult to achieve in such an ego-laden dressing room.
Zidane’s predecessors struggled to keep their superstars happy, with Jose Mourinho actively thriving on an atmosphere of eternal conflict. But the rookie French coach, despite his inexperience in the job, has managed to keep everyone happy. And that, more than anything, explains their title triumph.
Real Madrid have all they can ask for with just one La Liga game of the season to go and that is the destiny of the title in their own hands, coach Zinedine Zidane said on Saturday.
Madrid lead Barcelona by three points at the top of the table and just need to avoid defeat at Malaga on Sunday to be assured of a first La Liga title in five years.
Barca need to beat Eibar at home to have any chance of leapfrogging their fierce rivals.
Here, we look at six other occasions where Madrid had to seal the title on the last day of the season
2006/07 | REAL MADRID 3-1 REAL MALLORCA
Jose Antonio Reyes scored a brace as Madrid claimed a win to match Barca on 88 points but beat them on head-to-head record.
2002/03 | REAL MADRID 3-1 ATHLETIC BILBAO
Madrid edged Real Sociedad by two points on the last day after Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos found the net.
1979/80 | REAL MADRID 3-1 ATHLETIC BILBAO
Strikes from Angel, Juanito and Pirri saw Los Blancos edge out unfortunate Real Sociedad, by a solitary point.
1971/72 | REAL MADRID 4-1 SEVILLA
Madrid ran the risk of being caught by Barca and Valencia but Amancio, Santillana and a Pirri double did the business for the capital club.
1964/65 | SEVILLA 0-1 REAL MADRID
A sole Ferenc Puskas goal enabled Madrid to claim their 11th domestic title under the noses of Atletico Madrid.
1931/32 | BARCELONA 2-2 REAL MADRID
Madrid finished the season unbeaten to lift their first ever Spanish title with Athletic Bilbao runners-up.
Real Madrid need just one point from their Sunday trip to Malaga to win a first LaLiga title since 2012.
Here, we look at five talking points following their 4-1 victory at Celta Vigo.
POINT MEANS PRIZES
The prospect of needing to get something from their visit to Balaidos four days before the season ends has hung around the Real players’ necks for months. But now they are in the pleasant position of needing to only draw at Malaga on Sunday to clinch their first Spanish championship for five years.
RONALDO KEEPS ON ROLLING
He can’t be stopped. Now aged 32, Ronaldo’s overall figures have not been as good as in recent seasons but the Portuguese has tapped a rich vein of goal-scoring form.
His brace at Celta took him to 368 goals for clubs in Europe’s top-five leagues, passing Jimmy Greaves on the all-time list.
Former Bayern Munich midfielder Toni Kroos has struggled to make a major impact for Real this season and he has been linked with a move away from the Bernabeu in the summer.
However, back-to-back goals against Sevilla and Celta might earn the wily Germany international a reprieve from Zinedine Zidane.
MARCHING FOUR-WARD TO EUROPEAN GLORY
Real, who face Juventus in the Champions League final in June, have scored four in each of their last three LaLiga games, proving the wheels are well-oiled before the trip to Cardiff.
They are unlikely to experience that much joy against a Juve side who have conceded only thrice in Europe this term.
Eduardo Berizzo has done well to establish Celta in mid-table and the Galicians punched above their weight to reach the Europa League semi-finals, where they fell short against Manchester United.
They have now lost six straight league games and the Berizzo era might come to an end in due course.
Provided by Press Association