It took 2,582 days, 74 players, nine coaches, five presidents, and a Special one, to finally take Real Madrid past the round of 16 of the UEFA Champions league. On March 16th, 2011, the Whites comfortably defeated French giants, Lyon, by three goals to nil, after a first leg away match that ended in a draw with one goal apiece.
It was Real Madrid's most important match yet, as going through the round of 16 was necessary to finally defy the ghost that had hunted them at that stage of the competition for seven straight years. Under the guidance of Jose Mourinho, Marcelo, Karim Benzema, and Angel Di Maria were able to repay the Bernebeau for their support, and send a warning to the rest of Europe—Real Madrid is back.
However, our qualification into the quarter-finals means a lot of things. First of all, it means that we'll play a lot more matches than we've been used to for the past six years (seven matches to be exact), and it means that there is a chance that we'll witness three Clasicos in the month of April.
In the month of April, Madrid's season could be made or effectively broken. Almost everything the team has done this season, has led up to April. Battles and wars could be won and lost in that one important month. It's like the last fight in the second part of the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. And this is, of course, independent of the fact that I've never been able to watch all three parts of the trilogy at once because each time I try to do it, I end up fast forwarding to the last fight in the two towers when the elf, Legolas, slid down a staircase with his shield while shooting down a couple Uruks in a move that was brimming with shear awesomeness and artistry.
That said, here's a look at the matches to expect in April, but be warned, there's a touch of pessimism to this piece.
After the Liga Nacional de Futbol Profesional (LFP) had suspended La liga matches over some controversy on Television rights, six clubs (Athletic Bilbao, Real Sociedad, Real Zaragoza, Espanyol, Sevilla and Villareal) appealed against LFP's decision and took the case to a court in Madrid, Spain.
On Wednesday morning, the court ruled in favor of the clubs trying to call off the strike, and released a statement that read:
"The court decided that the official calendar for the first and second divisions should remain unaltered for the next round of matches"
This means that all the league matches will take place as planned and Real Madrid will host Sporting Gijon on Saturday, the 2nd of April. This match could be a walk over for the Whites, but it could cause a major upset. The international break hasn't brought a lot of good news because Marcelo, who travelled to England to play with the Brazillian national team, got injured during training, and will definitely miss this weekend's clash against Sporting.
Benzema had to substituted out of France's friendly international with Croatia, and was led to the dressing room by French doctors due to pains in his left thigh. He'll be examined by doctors in Madrid, to determine if he'll be fit for this weekends clash against Sporting.
Other injuries include Cristiano Ronaldo, Fernando Gago, and Ricardo Kaka. Xabi Alonso is suspended for this game, hence he will not participate.
The good news is that Gonzalo Higuain had made a miraculous recovery, and might be ready to face Sporting on Saturday.
On the fifth of April, we play our first Champions League Quarter-Final match in six years. The first leg will be take place at the Santiago Bernebeau stadium, with the Whites hoping to seal off the deal there and then.
On paper, this should be an easy fixture for the Whites, but if matches were won on paper, Tottenham would not have finished on top of their group ahead of defending champions, Inter Milan. Not only did they give Inter Milan a run for their money, but they knocked out their rivals, AC Milan, in the round of sixteen after going one goal up at the San Siro, and holding them to a goalless draw at White Hart Lane.
Even though the North Londoners haven't been at their best in the English Premier league, they've shown up against every giant in Europe they've faced this season, and Real Madrid might not be any different. Mourinho defeated Harry Redknap every time they faced each other when he was in England, but it's worth noting that at the time, Harry was coaching a Portsmouth team that was much weaker than his current Tottenham team.
This match also makes room for the exciting prospect of a match up of Sergio Ramos and Gareth Bale. Both of them are fast and energetic players who barely take no for an answer. It would be exciting to see they contain each other.
Rafeal Van Der Vaart will also visit the club he left this past summer
For Real Madrid to ensure that they go to White Hart Lane with the upper hand, they must not concede, and get a good win at the same time. Leave Tottenham players with absolutely no time on the ball, because with the speed they possess on that team, Real Madrid could be hurt if they lose concentration for even a second.
Jose Mourinho has not lost a game at home this season, and among the list of teams that could potentially end his unbeaten run, I'm pretty sure Tottenham is not one of them. It'll be shocking for that to happen; probably one of the biggest upsets in history.
The bad news for Tottenham is that they may be without Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale for their trip to Spain, but as we all know, these reports could be false claims made by certain entities as precautionary measure to ensure they play against Madrid.
Maybe it's the effect of the television, but San Mames, the stadium of Athletic Club Bilbao, always looks like a dark cave surrounded by red-eyed beasts drooling all over the place, watching a fight in their midst hoping to eat up whoever the unfortunate loser happens to be. Maybe it's just because the Bilbao players are all huge, but there's something about San Mames that makes it the scariest stadium in Spain, in my opinion. They are not called Los Leones for nothing.
Last season, Real Madrid lost by one goal to nil in that same stadium after an early goal from Llorente was too much for Pellegrini's men to come back from. That was last season, but nothing stops it from happening again this season. Real Madrid has been woeful away from home, drawing with Mallorca at the beginning of the season, drawing with Levante, drawing with Almeria, losing to Osasuna, and even losing to Levante by two goals to absolutely nothing in the Copa Del Ry. San Mames is never an easy stadium to visit, and even though they lost to Villareal at home, a few weeks ago, one can never rule out the extra motivation teams have when Los Blancos come to town.
This could cause a major upset as any point dropped at this stage of the season will effectively end the season for Madrid. Not like it's not not over yet.
After the match at San Mames, we'll travel to England where we have to play the second leg of the Quarter-Finals against Tottenham. Hopefully, this will be after the Whites have sealed the deal at home. This was one of Mourinho's favourable ties, because it gives him a chance to go back to England which he loves so much and cannot stop talking about.
It will also be a partial homecoming for some of the other players who plied their trade in England prior to their move to the Spanish capital. The players include Cristiano Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso, Lassana Diarra, Adebayor, Ricardo Carvalho and Alvaro Arbeloa.
This match will be the decider. If we win in the first leg, Tottenham will have to attack at White Hart Lane, which could be both good and bad for Los Blancos. Good in the sense that an attacking Tottenham side will leave some space at the back for Mourinho's counter-attacking machine to exploit, but bad in the sense that the defense will be pressurised a lot.
Mourinho might do what he did against Lyon. Attack at home with Marcelo at left back, but play a little more defensively away from home, with Arbeloa in place of the Brazillian. But it all depends on what the result is at home.
I am going to be completely honest and say that this match doesn't excite me anymore. Yes, it's because for the past three years, we've failed woefully. Every time we put up a good fight, but lose, then look forward to the second leg only to be humiliated even more.
In the 2008/2009 season Real Madrid president Ramon Calderon made one of the most idiotic moves ever known to man. He sacked Bernd Shcuster just one week before the first Clasico of that season and replaced him with ex-Tottenham and Sevilla coach, Juande Ramos. This was all because he had lost faith in the coach for making comments about how he felt it wasn't possible to get three points from Pep's Barca in Camp Nou judging from their strong start to the campaign as opposed to Real Madrid's mediocre start. Juande started by beating Zenith St Petersborg quite convincingly, only to lose to Barca by two goals to nothing.
Well, the optimistic fans like myself felt it was just a fluke, and that had Drenthe converted his one on one chance with Victor Valdez, we would have won the game. That was what we thought, until we got handed our asses in our own backyard. A 6-2 loss to Barca in front of our home fans was enough for one season, considering that we had already lost to Liverpool by 5 goals to nil on aggregates in the round of sixteen of the Champions League that same season.
Then we had Pellegrini. He had a very string start to the season especially after having acquired a completely new team. They were firing on all cylinders, then came the first Clasico of the season in Camp Nou. Ronaldo had just come back from a month long injury, and was not 100% fit for the game, but he started anyway, and was supposed to play for only 60 minutes of that match. He missed a goal, that he normally would have scored, and raised the confidence of Madridistas at an all time high, that we could actually win that game.
We missed chance after chance, and a few minutes into the second half, Dani Alves made an uncharacteristically good cross into the Madrid box, and boom, Zlatan Ibrahimovich had found the net. That goal sealed the match.
After the first leg of the Clasico, a lot of us were left to rue the missed opportunities we had in that match and how Barca won that match just because they were lucky. Once again, the optimist in me was eagerly looking forward to the second leg so that we could take our revenge on Barca, since we had been hard done by luck when we played earlier in the season.
Second leg couldn't have come any sooner and at the end of that match, I couldn't help but feel that I had wasted some months in my life anticipating that match. In fact the live commentary toward the end of that match that I read on espnsoccernet, summed up the whole match. It read:
"This is one of those matches where Real Madrid will never score even if they were given 20 minutes of injury time"
It was that bad. We were all bark and no bite. There was no intensity whatsoever in that match. A disgraceful match in every sense of the word.
You must give credit to the optimist in me because he's quite perseverent. After two years of utter disappointment, the 2010/2011 season (the current season) came with some renewed optimism of its own mainly because of the hiring of Jose Mourinho. Till now, I think signing him was the best move Florentino has made until now. But his arrival meant renewed optimism, and the belief that this was the year we would finally put Barca back in their place, of being second best.
This season started with draws against Mallorca and Levante, but were subsequently followed by wins and more wins including the two legs of the champions league matches against Ac Milan were we dominated the two legs, the 6-1 victories over Racing Santander and Derpotivo la Coruna, and the overall brilliance of our run in all competitions.
The day finally came, 29th of November 2010 (that date shall remain in my head forever). The highly anticipated El Clasico started with Barca dominating us like we were a third division team, then going ahead to hand us a 5-0 thrashing. It's not something anybody could easily recover from.
Apart from the shame our team put on our faces that night, another big thing that happened was that the optimist in me became comatose, and has been unconscious for a while now, waiting for something big to wake it up.
It is happening again. We've qualified for the Quarter-Finals for the first time in six years, and it's looking like we can actually take Barca this time. Don't count on it, in fact if you had to choose any of the games in April to watch, let it not be any of the Barcelona matches.
In April, Barcelona is going to be like a social disease. A disease that you don't know where you inherited from, or one that you know, but don't want to admit because you're in denial. That's going to be the case in April. No matter how much you don't want to see them or admit that they're good, they will still be there. We're stuck with them in the same league, and to make things worse, they've followed us to the Copa del Rey final.
On April 20th, Real Madrid will face off in the Mestalla stadium, to play the Copa del Rey final. It's a trophy that Real Madrid has the best chance of wining since it's a one-legged affair, and all it will take to win it is for Barca to have an off night like they had against Hercules at the beginning of the season.
Once again, don't look forward to that match too, it's easier to endure when you didn't have high hopes in the first place.
During our recovery process from the BV (Barcelona Virus) we might have been infected with some days prior, we'll have to travel to Mestalla where we face Valencia. They are a tough side to beat at home, and should never be taken for granted. They've had a bad spell as of late especially in their 4-0 loss to Real Zaragoza and their exit at the hands of Schalke 04, but they know how to play against the big boys.
They are struggling to stay in third place in the league in order to qualify for the Champions League next season, and that alone is enough motivations for them to play their hearts out against Real Madrid.
It will be tough.
If we make it past Tottenham, and Barcelona make it past Shakhter Donetsk, then we'll meet in the semi finals with the first leg on the 26th/27th of April. However, I will not say much about that since both teams have tricky fixtures to get past first.
April is going to be a pretty rough month. Realistically speaking, I don't expect us to come out of all those matches unscathed. We will fail in some, and prevail in the others, let's just hope we don't fail in the ones that matter the most.
What really matters is that we keep our cool during that period, and not feel uncomfortable in our own skin. Yes, hide from the Internet if we lose to Barca by five goals to nothing again, because honestly, that's the only way you'll survive that type of embarrassment, but at the end of the season, the administration should not make knee-jerk reactions, but should actually try to keep this team stable. It's the only way it can grow. Rome wasn't built in a day.