Real Madrid Aiming to End Long Quest for La Decima in Champions League Final

Guillem Balague@@GuillemBalagueFeatured ColumnistMay 22, 2014

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Take your pick, Real or Atletico? Which part of Spain's capital city is going to enjoy the bragging rights following the first ever European final to feature two clubs from the same city?

The dividing lines between rip-roaring success and abject failure in football can be cruelly thin. For Real, and in particular Carlo Ancelotti, this is a must-win game.

Victory, and the return to the Bernabeu of the "holy grail" that is the 10th European Cup/Champions League trophy (La Decima) will propel the quietly spoken, respectful Italian coach to the status of legend.

Lose it and his season will be considered a failure and—make no mistake about it—his job could be on the line. Only one thing could stop a new coach from coming in: None of the top managers who could get the position are currently available. But questions will be asked.

As much as they will deny it, the truth is that this is a side that effectively gave up on its pursuit of the league title because they only had eyes on Lisbon and the main prize.

Granted, victory in the La Liga title race was out of their hands, and they didn't know that Atletico would eventually win the title with a paltry two points out of a final possible nine, or that Barcelona, with just three out of nine, wouldn't seem that keen on winning it either. 

Real Madrid won their ninth and most recent European title in 2002.
Real Madrid won their ninth and most recent European title in 2002.ADAM BUTLER/Associated Press

But the simple fact is that had Real Madrid won at Valladolid and Celta Vigo—and there's no earthly reason why they shouldn't have done—they would have finished as champions.

That would have meant that with the Copa del Rey already in the trophy cabinet, Ancelotti would be striving for a treble instead of fighting for his Real Madrid life this weekend.

Everyone at the club has been so obsessed with winning La Decima that there has hardly been a single mention at any time during the season, even after Bayern Munich were soundly beaten in the semi-finals, that, actually, a treble was not beyond the realms of possibility.

The message that it was possible was not sent clear and loud enough.

The club's capitulation in the league would perhaps make more sense if they could now boast a full squad, fit and raring to go, but not even that is the case.

Worst news of all is the absence of Xabi Alonso from the starting lineup. His semi-final yellow card rules him out of the final, and he will be distraught. Asier Illarramendi, who was signed this season from Real Sociedad, will take his place. 

Or will he? He was replaced at half-time against Valladolid and Dortmund, so he seems to have lost the manager's trust. 

The alternatives are an inexperienced Casemiro (who is prone to rash decisions), Isco (who doesn't track back with the diligence Ancelotti would like) or Sami Khedira (who is not match fit at all).

The past doyens at the club, such as Fernando Hierro and Michel, are doing their level best to build Illarramendi up and sing his praises by saying he is the perfect replacement for Xabi.

Manager Carlo Ancelotti could be under pressure if Real Madrid lose the Champions League final.
Manager Carlo Ancelotti could be under pressure if Real Madrid lose the Champions League final.Martin Meissner/Associated Press

His manager backs this up saying in an interview with Marca that "he looks good to me, he's calm and he's confident," although I’m not convinced he totally believes it.

As recently as Tuesday, Ronaldo was declaring himself keen and raring to go before adding ominously that he was not yet 100 percent fit but he hoped to be by Saturday, a sentiment no doubt shared by his manager, teammates and all involved at the club.

The worrying aspect of this is that his recurrent injury could not just be muscular but the consequences of a weak knee; however, Madrid's secrecy makes it difficult to assess it. Could it be that after pushing his body to the limit, Ronaldo is suffering some kind of burnout?

Also worrying is the fact that Pepe is doubtful; his partnership with Sergio Ramos is one of the keys of this Real Madrid.

Should he not make it, then Varane will fill in as a straight swap for Pepe.

One thing's for sure; defeat for Atletico would be unfortunate, an accident; for Real it would be a disaster, a crisis.