Zinedine Zidane was quick to state his side wouldn’t offer Barcelona a guard of honour this Sunday. Real Madrid will be the first visitors to the Camp Nou since their Catalan rivals were officially confirmed as La Liga champions last weekend, but the customary routine won’t be observed.
This hints at the discomfort Real Madrid feel at being domestically dominated so comprehensively by Barca. While Los Merengues are preparing for their third successive Champions League final, their fourth in five years, they have been distinctly second (or even third) best in La Liga over the past decade or so.
Indeed, Barcelona have now won seven of the last 10 league titles in Spain, with Real Madrid winning just two in that time. There has been no challenging the Catalans’ supremacy and this has manifested itself most acutely in the gulf between Barca and Real Madrid in this season’s La Liga table – 15 points currently separate the two sides.
So why is this? Why have Real Madrid, for all their European success and undeniable quality, struggled to collect league titles in the way their great rivals have? In Clasicos, Real Madrid have had the edge in recent years, yet on the whole they lag well behind Barcelona, domestically. This doesn’t sit well with those at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Real Madrid are the club of the establishment, after all. The team of the king, the team of Spain. Many of their fans see it as a great indignity that they have allowed Barcelona, a team from Catalonia, to dominate domestic matters of late. While he might not admit such nationalist motivations, Perez may feel a similar pang. Such disgruntlement can be sensed in some of the remarks he has made over the years.
This is why many believe Zidane’s job could be under threat even if he pulls off a third straight Champions League triumph against Liverpool in Kiev later this month. Last season, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez made a point of highlighting just how badly he wanted to win La Liga. Zidane delivered, becoming the first Real manager since Jose Mourinho in 2011/12 to finish top of the pile in Spain. But the Frenchman failed to follow that up with a successful defence, with the capital side effectively out of the title race before Halloween. There was nothing to scare Barcelona as their title procession started early on.
Real Madrid managers have been sacked for less. If a change is made this summer, Zidane’s successor will be expected to instil some consistency to a side that has struggled to string wins together this season. Real’s explosive nature makes them one of the most dangerous sides in Europe on one-off occasions, or two-legged ties, but over the course of a league season they lack something.
Maybe that something is control. While the days of ‘Tiki-Taka’ at the Camp Nou might be over, Barcelona are still a team that plays best when they can dictate things on their own terms. Over 38 games in a league campaign, the instances of poor refereeing calls and inspired opponents tend to even out. It’s in Barca’s nature to win league titles, while this style of play leaves them open to flukes and cases of bad fortune in knockout competitions, like the Champions League.
The opposite can be said of Real Madrid, with their two La Liga titles over the past decade coming at times of decline for Barcelona. That is not good enough for a club whose entire identity is based on being the best, on being a big fish. With 12, maybe soon to be 13, European Cup and Champions League titles to their name, Real Madrid are a club defined by their success on the continent. But that doesn’t mean they don’t wish to be defined by success in their own country as well.
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