Someone wrote on the eve of the UEFA Champions League semi-finals that Real Madrid were the favourites among neutral fans looking for a side to back in the final four.
This was because, of all the remaining teams, Madrid were the only “pure” club that had not been infected by mega-money, with Chelsea being backed by a Russian oligarch’s fortunes and Manchester City and Paris Saint-German (PSG) having petro-dollar war chests.
To many, Real Madrid were the ordinary guy’s club among these teams, which have used bottomless reserves to bring glory and chase lofty ambitions in the past decade.
Never mind that Madrid, valued at €714.9 million (R12.3 billion), comes in at second in Deloitte’s Football Money League rankings, just below La Liga archrivals Barcelona, who are valued at €715.1 million. The other three finalists are ranked sixth, seventh and eighth, with Man City being worth €549.2 million; PSG €540.6 million and Chelsea €469.7 million.
The difference in the minds of the football public, however, is that the wealth of Madrid and most of the clubs on this list are there as a result of footballing grit, brand-building, strong marketing and business acumen over decades whereas Man City, PSG and Chelsea were catapulted to Europe’s elite by their respective Santa Clauses.
Another reason for Madrid as the neutrals’ choice was that, strangely, they were the underdogs in the final stages. The 13-time winners had a lacklustre Champions League campaign and should have considered themselves lucky to have got this far.
Their progress was not due to any great football player but rather being powered by the fumes of past success. Now they must turn to the domestic scene where they next face fourth-placed Sevilla on Sunday.
The unfancied Sevilla have been breathing down the necks of the top three, and a trip-up for Real will see the reigning champions – currently in second place – lose pace to log-leaders Atlético Madrid and third-placed Barcelona.
In a clash that will rival the tension of an El Clásico, Atlético will travel to the Camp Nou in Barcelona, Spain, on Saturday for a game that will have a huge bearing on the direction of the race.
At this stage of the season, you would expect captain Sergio Ramos to be the inspiration, but the man who has carried his team-mates on his shoulders on crucial occasions in all competitions in his many seasons at the Bernabéu has just returned from injury, when he had to watch from the stands as Los Blancos blew their chances of retaining the title with silly losses and draws.
Despite Ramos being not fully match-ready, coach Zinedine Zidane trusted him to give Real a heave-ho on his return to the big stage.
It was a costly mistake as his creaky form could not lift a side that sports broadcaster Gary Lineker described as the “poorest Real Madrid team I think I’ve ever seen”.
One of the big decisions that Zidane will have to make is whether to put trust in the character of his captain and field him again on Sunday.
He may be given confidence by Ramos’ bold assertion on social media that they were “f…d yes, down never”.
Defending himself and his team-mates, he declared that “the history of Real Madrid has been forged with victories, but it has risen from defeats, we still have the league and we are going for it”, he wrote on his Instagram account.
The other big decision is whether to repeat his other mistake of fielding an Eden Hazard who has experienced an injury-plagued season that made him a pale shadow of the Chelsea player that Real chased for years and eventually bagged for €100 million. He was virtually nonexistent on the night that Zidane believed he could gamble on his once-prolific foot.
If Zidane chooses to field him again, he will be gambling on a player who did not just disappoint fans on the field of play but also infuriated them with his sense of bonhomie with his former Chelsea pals while his team-mates walked off the field dejected. So fierce was the reaction that he even had to issue a public apology, but he will have to do a lot more to win back the love.
When Real take to the field on Sunday, they will have the benefit of knowing who of the other title contenders faltered the previous day.
Just like Real were the neutrals’ favourites in the last four of the Champions League, their city rivals Atlético are in the same boat as this La Liga season draws to a close.
Diego Simeone’s men have led most of the race and the overwhelming sentiment in the footballing world is that it would be a grave injustice if they were to be pipped at the final hurdle.
For the first time in ages, the duopoly which saw the El Clásico rivals trade dominance was properly disrupted by Atlético this season.
On 76 points with four games to go, Atlético leads Real and Barcelona by just two points.
If they falter at Camp Nou on Saturday in a match that is this weekend only rivalled by the Manchester City versus Chelsea two hours at the Etihad, they will lose the momentum and psychological advantage that is so critical at this stage.
Keen to put a knife into his former club that dumped him after years of sterling service will be Luis Suárez, whose performance – including 19 La Liga goals – has been the influential force behind the Atlético title chase.
It would be inaccurate to credit Suárez with Atlético’s run, nor place all the burden for the remaining four games on him. Yannick Carrasco and Marcos Llorente have also put in the hard miles. It was when this trio took their feet off the pedal – either as a result of a dip in form or injury – that Atlético lost the energy, creativity and killer instinct that had made them seem like runaway winners at the beginning of this year.
Besides the magic maker Lionel Messi, Barcelona will also be looking to a man who wants to inflict pain on his former team.
Antoine Griezman, who was meant to fill the gap left by Neymar and Suárez at Camp Nou, didn’t have an easy landing.
He was initially shunned by both team-mates and fans for comments he had made about Barcelona when he was still in the Spanish capital.
He has since come right and the improvement in relations with his team-mates has seen him see much more of the ball and find the net regularly in the latter part of this season. This could prove vital tomorrow.
Then there is Messi. Well, what more can we say about the hopes placed on this man who seemed distracted by off-field issues earlier in the season. In these closing stages, Messi is now doing for Barcelona what he has always done, turning cheap coal into gold.
With 28 goals under his belt, Ronald Koeman will be praying to all the gods he has heard of that this form remains over the next few weeks.
Whatever the results of this weekend’s games, what is certain is that we are in for the most nail-biting La Liga finale in a long, long time.
And what will make it even more nail-biting is that these three contenders have had this incredible knack of dropping unnecessary points, even at this time.
So, do not rule out some twists and turns beyond this weekend.