Real Madrid: Why Real Can Shock Everyone and Win the Champions League
Real Madrid have never seemed further from their much-desired 10th Champions League title. However, is it really appropriate to say that capturing La Decima this season is beyond hope for this current Real Madrid side?
Even prior to Jose Mourinho's arrival at the Bernabeu, the best the club could really hope for was to advance out of the group stages but face certain defeat in the last 16.
That was the story for almost a decade. A decade in which a reinvigorated Barcelona went to the final twice and won both.
But warring parties inside the Madrid camp is a good enough distraction from the fact that this is still one of Europe's best teams, and on paper one that has only strengthened since its La Liga title win back in May.
How familiar will the pre-Mourinho Madrid be now? If the manager continues in this manner—one which sees the captain and star goalkeeper benched, one which gives clear evidence to divisions in the squad, one which sees Mourinho square-off with the fans and the media—then defeat in the last 16 against Manchester United is highly probable.
If Mourinho wants to bring the club success in European competition for the first time since 2002, if he wants to be the first manager to win the European Cup with three different clubs, he simply must sheath his sword and lay to rest the unnecessary squabbling he's created.
Mourinho is off in the summer, that much seems certain. It doesn't make sense for Florentino Perez to part company with his manager at this stage in the season—how much good will it really do? At the very least, the club president doesn't want to have to go down that route. But if Mourinho persists then he may have no choice.
But let's put the soap opera aside for a moment. What has been evident in recent games is that certain members of the squad are coming to the fore once again.
Karim Benzema is slowly looking to regain that scoring form that played such a vital role in the club's title win last season. However, he's also a forward who plays the striker position exceptionally well and specifically to the needs of the rest of the team.
Benzema's ability to drift wide, drop deep and play a part in the build-up of goals allows others to rotate in and out of the central position. It has been a noticeably slow start from the French international, but if his form continues in the same manner, he'll be an important factor in battles against teams such as Manchester United.
And what about Mesut Ozil? How many times over the past few weeks have we spoken about his importance to the team? How many times will we continue to highlight his contribution for the rest of the season?
In the position he plays—the creator and most advanced of a central midfield three—there is no one better in world football. You can see the danger levels rise, as well as the excitement when the German is on the ball in the final third. How many teams can handle him and the powerful frontline he helps to form in Madrid's attack?
Once again, it comes down to Mourinho putting aside his problems with the Spaniards in the squad and their allies. But with everyone on the same page and a versatile, rotating and relentless attacking four, there are few teams on the continent who rival the quality of those at Mourinho's disposal.
At this stage, it's certainly easier to imagine Real Madrid as a weakened giant with too many internal issues to forge a powerful and sustained charge on Europe's grandest prize. But maybe that works into their favour.
Unlike Madrid, Manchester United are flying high, sitting relatively comfortably at the top of the Premier League table and, like Madrid, have one of the best forwards in Europe in their attack in Robin van Persie. But that team aren't as good. Alex Ferguson's team cannot be as spectacular as Real Madrid can be.
And maybe that's Mourinho's greatest weapon. The Portuguese manager loves to create a backs-against-the-wall mentality with his teams, an atmosphere that is rife with us-against-the-world. The Champions League last 16 against Manchester United is a fantastic opportunity to show the world that they're not the crippled animal they're perceived to be.
Does that mean a knock to Mourinho's pride? Almost certainly.
Going forward, Iker Casillas should be placed into every starting XI. The manager needs to settle on his best team and bring out their most lethal quality on a consistent basis.
It's not beyond possibility: we've seen him and his team do it for all of last season. If he wants to send a message to certain players then fine, but airing the team's dirty laundry out in public isn't helping matters.
But one of the keys to winning this 10th Champions League will be the style of football. We saw a glimpse of the old Madrid on the weekend against Sociedad. The counterattack saw Ozil feed Benzema, only for his shot on goal to rebound off the post and then to be sent over by Sami Khedira.
That's the football that saw Madrid to the league title. That's the football that will see them to a respectable and perhaps even victorious position in this season's Champions League: the ball moved from back to front at pace, four-plus Madrid players attacking, Ozil at the heart.
It's not beyond reach, but it all starts with Mourinho altering his ways.
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