“Kings of Europe,” the Real Madrid fans sing. “We’re the kings of Europe!” And it it difficult to disagree. Los Blancos are 12-time European champions and have won the Champions League in three of the past four seasons. This term, they are on course to add another.
It is a remarkable record and one which other clubs can only envy. Even as football’s financial landscape changes and mega-rich teams like Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain splash the cash in an attempt to fast-track to the top, Real keep winning in Europe.
PSG coach Unai Emery, who is leaving the club this summer after losing out to Los Blancos in the last 16 of Europe’s premier club competition, said: “Like a woman, the Champions League must be wooed, gradually. Right now, she is Real Madrid’s girlfriend – they have won three of the last four editions.”
In La Liga, however, it is a different story. Because although Real still boast more league titles than any other club in Spain, they have only won the Primera Division twice in the past 10 years.
Meanwhile, Barcelona’s title win – which was confirmed on Sunday with four games to spare thanks to a 4-2 win away to Deportivo La Coruna – was the Catalans’ seventh league crown in that time. So why have Madrid struggled so much compared to the Blaugrana in the domestic competition over the past decade?
To start with, Real have been up against the best Barcelona team in history. Pep Guardiola’s great team claimed the first three of those titles and were only stopped in the Catalan coach’s final season, when Jose Mourinho led Real to the title with a record 100 points.
Tito Vilanova’s Barca equalled that mark in the following campaign and even though the Blaugrana missed out on the title in 2013-14 under Gerardo Martino, it was Atletico and not Real that claimed the trophy, with Madrid back in third place.
Luis Enrique then led the Catalans to two out of three titles, before Zinedine Zidane’s men won it in 2016-17 along with a second straight Champions League, but Barca are champions again this term with Madrid 15 points off the pace.
Zidane has been at a loss when asked to explain why Madrid can turn it on in the Champions League but not in La Liga, describing last season’s league title as the highlight of his tenure. Perhaps it’s because it has been more difficult for his team to win.
Madrid’s failures in La Liga have also been a source of embarrassment for Florentino Perez. The Real president is delighted when entertaining high-profile guests at the Bernabeu with tales of European glory, but is said to wince when the VIP visitors ask why Los Blancos struggle so much in the league.
Despite his huge investment since 2009, Madrid remain a team better suited to knockout competitions and counter-attacking football, while Barca’s XI is built to dominate possession with a style which suffocates rival teams. In addition, they have a player who can unlock defences like no other in Lionel Messi.
Cristiano Ronaldo is a different type of footballer. For all his greatness, the Portuguese is a player who finishes off the moves and he relies upon his team-mates to create chances. Messi, meanwhile, is a goalscorer but also a creator for Barca, and a man who so often produces something out of nothing.
Another aspect is hunger. At Madrid, there is the sensation that the players are less motivated when it comes to league games against smaller sides like Girona, Getafe or Betis. Movement can be scarce and some of the forwards do not track back as they should.
At Barcelona, only Messi is afforded that privilege. All of the others have to pull their weight and that is why it was habitual to see Neymar and Luis Suarez as the first line of defence in their time together at Camp Nou.
For Real, there is a noticeable shift in attitude and work-rate for the big European games and after winning La Liga last season, it was almost as if a box had been ticked. Zidane’s side were up for the UEFA Super Cup, the Spanish Supercopa and then the Club World Cup, yet strangely subdued in their pursuit of the Primera Division earlier on this season.
With all of the quality and the strength in depth in their squad, Madrid should be more consistently competitive in the Primera Division and after winning just two league titles in the past decade, they will be expected to do much better next season. Because not even they can win the Champions League every year