It has been 1,057 days since Real Madrid last lost in the Champions League knockout stages. And in those 1,057 days, a lot has transpired at the most successful club in European soccer history.
There have been trophies won and history made. There have been records broken and standards of excellence set higher than ever. There have been exorbitant expectations met and crises averted.
And for a club constantly operating under the weight of those expectations, with crisis invariably waiting just around the corner, there has been remarkable consistency. Or rather there had been. Until this past fall.
Real Madrid won five trophies in 2017, but as the calendar year drew to a close, success became burdensome. Results slipped.
The La Liga title race sailed away from the Spanish capital earlier than anybody could have imagined. A Copa Del Rey exit furthered the humiliation. And suddenly, the specter of upheaval had returned.
It manifested itself in calls for Zinedine Zidane’s sacking; in rumors of pending widespread squad turnover, fire sales and multi-hundred-million-euro transfer fees. It called for change.
And Real Madrid simply plugged up its ears and refused.
Real Madrid is still Real Madrid. That, more than anything else, is what its response to external declarations of crisis has shown. Cristiano Ronaldo is still Cristiano Ronaldo, which has helped the club’s case. And the two-time reigning European champions, for the first time since early September, look like favorites for a threepeat.
On a rainy Tuesday night in Turin, they reasserted themselves atop European football with the performance everybody thought them capable of but few had seen since last spring. Over 90 minutes, in front of 40,000 Italians who gradually came to accept their team’s sorry fate, they buried Juventus just as they had done in Cardiff last May.
Over the first 60, they were somewhat shaky. They reminded us of their shortcomings; of the reasons their season had teetered on the brink of full-fledged disaster. Their attacking forays left their defense shapeless and waiting to be exposed. They were rescued at the back by Giorgio Chiellini’s flubbed header and Keylor Navas’ fantastic save on Gonzalo Higuain.
KeYlOr NaVaS iSn'T gOoD eNoUgH fOr ReAl MaDrId pic.twitter.com/org4rlKIxo
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) April 3, 2018
But in the second half, Ronaldo offered up another reminder. A more important one. A more emphatic one.
Entering Tuesday, in those 1,057 days since a semifinal loss to the Bianconeri in the 2015 semifinals, Ronaldo had scored 40 Champions League goals. He had eclipsed the century mark for his career. He had scored the title-winning penalty in one final and two goals in another. And over the past few months he had assuaged concerns about a possible decline; he had scored in nine consecutive Champions League matches, equaling Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s record.
On Tuesday, his 41st Champions League goal since Real Madrid’s last elimination broke Van Nistelrooy’s record. His 42nd was, as a helpless Andrea Barzagli said after the match, “a Playstation goal.”
Ronaldo, with the 119th Champions League goal of his career, offered a timely reminder that he can still do that. And because he can – but not only because he can – Real Madrid’s chase for a third straight European crown is still on course. Its flaws stand out more than those of any other top team; but so do its superlative strengths.
The 11 that started at Juventus on Tuesday night were the same 11 that started the final 10 months ago. They are not precisely the same players, nor precisely the same team. But they’re capable of being just as good – especially with Ronaldo just as good as he’s ever been.
After the 3-0 first-leg victory, they’re all but into the semifinals for an eighth consecutive season. They’ve rendered domestic struggles all but irrelevant. And on Tuesday night, with the world still digesting the latest example of Ronaldo’s excellence, the phrases “Real Madrid” and “Champions League favorite” went together once again.
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