Real Madrid, for many the biggest club in the world, are involved in a continual battle to prove that this is in fact the absolute, unshakeable, inarguable truth.
The metrics which could be used to decide such a sweeping, grandiose statement are as wide-ranging as the globally strewn fans who support the club: merchandise sales, corporate sponsorship deals, trophy titles, television revenue. Player signings.
Their apparent current interest in Colombian striker Radamel Falcao is another indication of their desire to be seen as the greatest, the best, the strongest, with Alex Harris of the Express citing French media reports declaring that Real's sale of Angel Di Maria gives the Spanish club the funds to bring the Monaco forward to the Santiago Bernabeu.
KNOCK ON EFFECT: Sale of Di Maria means Real Madrid have a non-EU space in squad for Radamel Falcao or another foreign striker...— Eurosport.com (@EurosportCom_EN) August 26, 2014
2013-14, with Carlo
With "just" one league title and one domestic cup win in five seasons prior to Carlo Ancelotti's arrival at the Bernabeu last summer, Real were an expensively assembled almost-club for a period. They finished as La Liga runners-up in 2009, '10 and '11 before winning in '12, then ending second once more in '13.
Three semi-final knock-outs in the Champions League between '11 and '13 also marked them out as a team which had talent, but either not quite the final quality required or else not the direction to consistently win at the top.
Ancelotti was handed new recruits, not least of which was world-record signing Gareth Bale, but what he brought was an ability to bind the players together in a fashion that brought consistent results, good football and got the best out of the top individuals.
His tactics changed during the season, meaning a shift in some personnel, but he did it for good reasons and achieved success as a result.
After a dozen years of waiting, Ancelotti delivered La Decima, the 10th European Cup/Champions League win for Real Madrid, along with the Copa del Rey. Critics point to a third-place finish in La Liga with city rivals Atletico taking the title, but there were just three points from first to third—and Real were in the title race right up to the final games.
It was only then, when it became less likely they could quite catch Atleti, that Real eased off and changed the side somewhat, concentrating more on the two finals ahead.
Ancelotti had put this side together: a squad of expensive, talented, famous names who had become a team for the season. A successful one.
Modric, Di Maria
Cristiano Ronaldo had perhaps his greatest ever season and Bale soon settled into his new role and club, but two monstrous season-long performances came from midfielders Luka Modric and Angel Di Maria.
As two-thirds of the altered 4-3-3 midfield, those two brought precision and pace, ingenuity and aggression, work rate and final-third end product.
Isco was a casualty of that alteration as Real didn't operate with a real No. 10, but Di Maria more than made up for the youngster's absence with his driving runs, nonstop closing down and willingness to quickly exchange positions down the left channel with the likes of Ronaldo. And when the Real No. 7 runs central, goals happen.
Speaking of goals, Karim Benzema was Real's only real striker last season, and he hit 24 goals as a result and contributed to far, far more as a great foil for the wide forwards. Now, talk of Falcao to replace him is not only growing momentum, but is seen as perfectly par for the course for a Real side which had a front three functioning probably better than any other in world football last season.
So all was great, rosy and optimistic at the end of last season—but Real Madrid are Real Madrid, and improvements needed to be made to Europe's best club of 13-14. Bigger names had to be sought. Bigger deals made.
James Rodriguez—was there any pre-World Cup interest in the former Monaco playmaker? It certainly didn't seem that way, but in he came post-Brazil 2014 for a huge fee. Toni Kroos joined him, a superb player adding to a packed and well-oiled midfield.
Keylor Navas joined as a goalkeeper, last season's first-choice league stopper Diego Lopez departed, and Di Maria was shunted out of the club with a farewell letter and an indication that it was not his intent to depart on the back of such a successful season:
I want to make it clear that this was never my wish. I've always wanted to progress, as anyone else does in their job. I went to the World Cup after winning the 'Decima' with the hope of getting some signal from the Club Management, but it never came. Many things were said and many lies circulated. They always wanted to pin the idea of leaving the club on me, but that's not how it was. Unfortunately, my football isn't to someone's taste.
Even Modric, though he has received a new contract, will find his tactical role in midfield having to be subtly altered this term to accommodate and make the most of the new arrivals in the centre.
Plus there's the impending Benzema-Falcao dilemma.
And who is left to deal with all this?
Or Bernd Schuster, or Vanderlei Luxemburgo, or Manuel Pellegrini.
The coach can have all the success he wants one campaign, bring in trophies and finally get what can at times be a dysfunctional unit into a consistently performing side...but ultimately, the club's innate need to prove itself as above the best of the rest will dictate that this has to start all over again, likely far quicker than the manager would want.
All great or successful clubs—however relatively that is applied—need an identity, an ethos, a set of ideals to which they adhere and try to continue growing with. Real's is to be bigger, more widespread, more powerful than any of their rivals.
That's not better or worse than any other club's, but it is Real Madrid's way, and any manager going in there knows and has to deal with that.
The squad is stacked once more for the 2014-15 season, but that cannot automatically translate to ongoing, sustained success. Ancelotti is tasked once more with building and tweaking a side with match-winners into a side who can defend, transition and attack, better than anybody else, domestically and on the continent.
A great man perhaps, a great manager undoubtedly and with great achievements last season certainly, but he's still almost back to square one for 2014-15.
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