Simon Smith looks at the narrative surrounding title chasers and the aura of invincibility which made Real Madrid and Chelsea more vulnerable…
After yet another episode of self-congratulation in the endless carousel that is the Ronaldo-Messi show, Ballon d’or finalists Leo and Cristiano returned to business as usual this week with headline dominating performances and five goals between them. Real Madrid have had to contend with another reshuffle of their squad this season following some classic Perez-ing in the summer; he may be the only club president in European Football the British public recognise. The narrative has been much the same as last season too; Ancelotti’s masterclass in ego management, tactical ingenuity and flexibility of approach that has allowed for a near seamless inclusion of James and Kroos into an already star studded side.
And yet this expertise, the ability to field a front six as ridiculous as Isco-Kroos-Bale-Ronaldo-James-Benzema as Real had the audacity to start with in the World Club Cup final, has become in recent weeks almost a stick to beat Madrid with. Questions of fatigue in the squad have cast a spotlight on the lack of rotation. As impressive as Real have been since their early season struggles, as unreal as the all competitions win streak became, the League is not only not beyond Barcelona yet, but likewise local rivals Atleti.
The thorn in Ancelotti’s side is not that Barcelona have failed to implode during a period of off-pitch crisis; it isn’t the way Messi-Suarez-Neymar has shown flickering signs of becoming a real and viable strategy in recent matches; it’s that all this has happened almost by accident. Barcelona have hardly been devoid of strategy this season, but the starting XI has yet to remain unchanged in consecutive league fixtures. The record of having 25 different starting lineups this season is staggering to the point where one wonders if you would stumble upon that if you actually tried to.
The endless rotation at Camp Nou compares both unflatteringly and favourably with the Bernabeu’s nailed on galacticos. In the second half of the season, if a more established starting 11 should form itself, will Barca be the fitter and hungrier side? And perhaps more interestingly, how will the neutral feel about this?
Since Pep Guardiola’s departure, there has felt like a seismic shift in the almighty pendulum of power away from Catalunya and back to the capital, and if the demise of one of history’s greatest sides is the main reason for this, then Real Madrid should retain some credit for hammering the advantage. Post-Mourinho Madrid have evolved into an almightily impressive side, adventurous and unflinching in their sheer ridiculousness; a peak-Madrid self parody of garish excess and sparkling limelight cumulating in la decima. It will therefore be interesting should Madrid once again fail to win the league this season whether this side will be remembered as a great side at all, and likewise what the Barca-lite will be thought of, should they become the Spanish champions again.
As heralded and acclaimed as Madrid’s recent 21-game winning streak was, and as much as they are expected to go on to win the league, the impregnability surrounding them and the certainty about their triumph came crashing down spectacularly this January, in a manner that asks – what it was that was so impressive about them in the first place? In retrospect, have Real Madrid been impressive in critical acclaim more so than in results given the proximity of their title rivals?
This schism between the impressive, the inspiring sides that are remembered, and the underwhelming successful sides, is one that will always find its way into fans’ and players’ memories. Chelsea this season have been much heralded as champions elect; hypothesized as possible invincibles long before the question was appropriate, compared to the disgustingly successful early Mourinho teams and celebrated in a narrative of the absence of title rivals.
This was only spoiled by the crawling of Manchester City into their lead, the underwhelming march of the current English Champions that reached a point where the media reaction gave away the surprise at the sudden realisation that the title race was back on. How will this Chelsea side be remembered should the unthinkable happen and they fail to win the league? And where did this sheen of impregnability come from, given that this was a side who last season finished below a now derided and forgotten Liverpool side?
Certainly a huge part of this is the image and mentality that the club project. The turnaround at Juventus under Antonio Conte, whereby the club rose from seventh to the Scudetta in 12 months is a great example of an aura of intimidation and recognition of the imperiousness of the Juventus Stadium reinforcing their infallibility. But this was rightly achieved through monumental domestic success, and consequently in Europe there have been constant question marks over their ability to perform on the continental stage. Real Madrid have the glamour and success of la decima to support their European credentials, but no such reason to suppose the club deserves any significant reputation in the league title race.
Perhaps it is the sheer terror of the team itself that gives sides like Real and Chelsea their image of invincibility despite their involvement in continuing title races. There is something infinitely relatable about both sides to the general public as much as opposition defences, in that they possess such obvious strengths in a predictable manner and yet remain dangerous. The way Chelsea’s playing to Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas’ strengths has continued to work long after opponents started trying to counter this. The inevitability of the Ronaldo cut inside is matched only by its deadliness.
The combination of revealing their hand and yet still cleaning up the poker table makes it seem as if nobody could ever hope to beat them regardless of what the dealer hands them. But the flip side of this is that bereft of mystery, without the elusive tag of being a “surprise package”, those sides with the aura of invincibility quickly slip into crisis when things go wrong. Chelsea will entertain Manchester City now in the aftermath of that shock Arsenal defeat, and the narrative has already been scripted by every pundit and fan as a chance for Chelsea to establish an unasailible lead; the lead their status deserves.
And yet it was just a couple of weeks ago that it was the West London club under the spotlight. Were they becoming one-dimensional, was complacency creeping in? In a weigh in, surely Chelsea and Real Madrid are the favourites on paper for their respective leagues. They have the more obvious and stronger starting elevens, well drilled and refined machines, and they would most likely win a one-match contest against their title rivals. Yet it is the unfancied and mortal City and Barcelona, changing their shape and selections, who have the large squads and potential surprises. Might they be better equipped in this way for the actual task of winning a league title, of playing the long list of games against different opponents?
League titles are often said to be the most accurate measure of a team’s success, and yet the qualities we most admire in sides do not always match the tools of achieving this. Arsenal’s “Invincibles” gained this image in hindsight more than at the time, the image of solidity papering over Philippe Senderos’ proximity to starting. Liverpool’s last season is now best known for their cavalier approach coming undone, but the relentless blowing away of so many teams cumulating in their defeat of Manchester City gave them a faint aura of invincibility, if only for a moment. Real Madrid seem invincible right now, worthy of a league title, but there may be more Valencias on the horizon for them yet.