Los Blancos: The Famine Before The Feast

Throughout the history of club football’s most dominant franchises, it’s fair to say that at no other point have Real Madrid and Barcelona remained firmly fixed constants in the simultaneous equation of ego and honor, each laying claim to supremacy in winner-takes-all grandiose.

Four years after Zidane’s moment of ethereal genius won Real Madrid the La Novena in Glasgow, Juliano Belletti would match the immortal Zizou, not in execution of an audacious, you-had-no-right volley, but in scoring the winning goal that secured his team the most coveted prize in European football.

For the first time since 1992, Barcelona had conquered Europe, but at the time, the bitterness in the Spanish capital was mild; after all, the argument of domestic dominance and having nine European cups to Barcelona’s two still held water. It was music to ears of Madridistas, who sang it wherever they went.

Whilst Franck Rikjaard’s 2006 double with the Blaugrana would symbolically reawaken the winning mentality at Nou Camp, the Dutchman’s days in the Barcelona dugout came to an expected end once Fabio Capello and Bernd Schuster delivered back-to-back La Liga titles to the already-starving Real Madrid supporters, who had endured a three-year trophy drought for the first time in twenty five years.

Rijkaard left, but so did his colleagues in the Spanish capital.

Fabio Capello’s second spell at the Bernabeu wasn’t any different from the first, and the reason for his dismissal wasn’t any different either. The former Milan and Juventus boss had beaten Barcelona to the title, but his predominantly pragmatic approach became the talking point of his failure to bring home the all-important La Decima, Real Madrid’s 10th European title.

On March 7, 2007, Capello’s men, following a 2-1 defeat to Bayern at the Allianz Arena, crashed out in the last-16 as UEFA Champions League knock-out plague struck again, only in this incarnation, it appeared in the name of Lúcio and a lethal Roy Makaay.

The starting line-up was proof that both sides possessed world class material, but the Bundesliga giants had capitalized on Real’s sloppiness to overturn a 3-2 first leg defeat, forcing a 4-4 aggregate that ended Capello’s dreams, in a game that saw both Mark Van Bommel and Mahamadou Diarra sent off.

For German tactician Schuster, he had sinned against the incorruptible Spirit of Madridistas, publicly admitting that a weak and vulnerable Los Merengues stood no chance against league leaders FC Barcelona ahead of the December 2008 Clásico.

“That Barcelona game worries me less than any other because it’s impossible to win at Camp Nou right now. Barcelona are rolling over everyone. It is their year. Given the state we are in, all we can ask for is go there and put on a decent display,” Schuster told the Spanish media.

Traditionally, it was, is, and remains forbidden, for a Real Madrid manager to publicly concede defeat to Barcelona. Little wonder club veteran Raúl González’s corrective measures were as swift as the outstretched arms of Muhammad Ali.

“No one should write us off, we’re not dead!” the Spaniard responded to Schuster’s comments the following Monday.

On the back of a horrible run of results; four defeats in three and nine points adrift Pep Guardiola’s men, the days of the blonde angel in the Spanish capital were numbered, and ultimately, the last straw was the 4-3 defeat at the Bernabéu to Sevilla on December 7, 2008.

President Ramón Calderón and sporting director Predrag Mijatović reached a decision, and on the 9th of December 2008, two days after the Sevilla upset, Schuster disappeared from the Bernabéu.

One week after losing to the Andalusians at home, Schuster’s worries were confirmed: Los Merengues could only withstand Guardiolismo for 82 minutes. In a game that produced two goals and eight yellows, Christoph Metzelder, Sergio Ramos, Royston Drenthe, Míchel Salgado and Iker Casillas got their marching orders as did Samuel Eto’o and Lionel Messi.

However, for Barcelona, it mattered little; Guardiola’s most trusted forwards had stolen the lead with eight minutes on the clock, stretching the gap between Culés and Juande Ramos’s men to twelve points.

The lights went out, the curtains came down but when the world opened its eyes again, Manuel Pellegrini was Real Madrid manager.

At a time when returning president Florentino Pérez flaunted his outrageous largesse name-your-price money, the Galáctico influx of Kaká, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Xabi Alonso and Álvaro Arbeloa brought an expectation level that virtually ruined what should have been a fine first year for the former Villarreal boss.

A record 96-points, including 18 wins in his final 19 games provided enough proof that the assembling of a well-oiled machine was underway. Unfortunately, Pérez lost his faith, the power cables were cut, and the engineer was forced to part ways with the expensive tools at his disposal.

Manuel Pellegrini’s dismissal, cold, calculated, unceremonious and to the annoyance of Madrid supporters, once again highlighted the unforgiving approach of Pérez and his directors in ending the drought and bringing back the glory days.

“The period at Real Madrid was the most painful of my career” the West Ham boss told Tactical Football in September 2017.

“I left with a bitter taste in my mouth. I’d have loved to have more time as many players arrived that year and sometimes it takes time for them to gel in the best possible way,” Pellegrini added.

In the first decade of the new millennium, the last two trebles in club football were won by Josep Guardiola and José Mourinho, loyal students of the legendary Johan Cruyff, who had, through completely contrasting routes, become the best managers in the game.

For obvious reasons, Pep Guardiola and Real Madrid were forbidden fruits that could never dine on the same table, but for José Mourinho, having restored his ego through Calcio and with nothing else to prove in the Peninsula, it was time to join forces with compatriot Cristiano Ronaldo and obliterate Guardiolismo.

“The hiring of Jose Mourinho, one of the world’s best coaches, is an important opportunity that this Real Madrid, which always fights for excellence, could not afford to miss. We are absolutely convinced that we need a fresh impulse and that a coach like Mourinho can be the person to take charge of this club for the next few years”-Florentino Pérez on bringinf Jose Mourinho to the Bernabéu. [The Telegraph]

The former Porto and Chelsea boss didn’t just provide impulse, he brought fire, excitement, and brimstone.

The days of Champions league last-16 elimination were gone, there was a new swagger about Real Madrid now, and by the time Cristiano Ronaldo headed Los Blancos to a 1-0 Copa del Rey victory over Barcelona at the Mesttalla, and Real Madrid cruised to La Liga in May 2012, José Mourinho had his first trophies in Spain and two more paragraphs of the most heated Clásico era had just been written.

Yet, the holy-grail eluded the special one, and continued to do so. Whilst the Portuguese took his white army into three successive semi-finals-–their first since the late 90s/early 00s, was it not those agonizing nights in Barcelona, Munich and Dortmund that marred the Special One’s bloodless coup on a continent he had only recently conquered with much smaller armies?

By May 2013, with the exception of Josep Guardiola, Mourinho had made all the wrong enemies in Spain; Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Los Blancos Ultras, the Spanish media… the third season implosion was underway and on the 1st day of June 2013, the Portuguese negotiated departure by mutual consent with Florentino Pérez citing pressure as the reason for Mou’s exit.

The special one had indeed restored some sense of pride to the Bernabéu crowd; Pep Guardiola wasn’t a divinity after all, the bald Catalan could be stopped, yet he was impossible to match. José knew it, Pérez knew it, but ultimately, in the long run, everyone agreed the Portuguese had become a cancer in the very system he was hired to transform.

Tactical merchants of different tribes and philosophies would come and go. United by the search and conscious pursuit of Europe’s Holy Grail, Florentino Perez put the fear of God in these managers as each sought to add another badge of European honor to football’s most coveted white shirt.

Nine months later, Lisbon.

Not until Sergio Ramos restored parity in 90+3, and Gareth Bale, Marcelo and Cristiano Ronaldo netted in extra-time at the Estadio da Luz, did Real Madrid begin to feel like Real Madrid again.

What better way to end your European drought than through a 4-1 triumph in the most tensed of Madrid derbies?

Carlo Ancelotti, Fabio Capello and José Mourinho had all built enduring legacies during their Calcio days, but as far as Madrid folklore was concerned, it was Don Carlo who stood out, and while it wasn’t surprising that he eventually suffered same fate as his predecessors after a trophyless campaign, it can be argued, that it was Carletto’s La Décima that well and truly set the tone for the feast that followed once Zidane –his former assistant, replaced Rafa Benítez in 2016.

By: Andy Mukolo