During the transfer window of January 2009, Real Madrid signed Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Lassana Diarra, without realising that only one of them could be added to Real's Champions League squad.
On one radio show in Spain, while the pundits were debating the finer points about who should be the chosen one for the rest of the competition, whether the goal hunter or the midfield enforcer, the station's sound guy said behind his glass wall: "I don't know what the big deal is: Real have got only two matches left in the competition".
The comment was put on air by the host, and was celebrated as a brilliant bit of off-the-cuff banter. Only, as we know, it became true, as Real were eliminated. As they have for the previous four years, and as they have now for the sixth season running.
This has led to everyone looking for reasons as to why this would happen. Because six seasons in a row can't be coincidence, can it? Well, no, and yes.
On the one hand, look at the players from the team who were knocked out by Juventus in the 2004-05 second round: Casillas, Salgado, Helguera, Samuel, Roberto Carlos, Gravesen, Beckham, Figo, Zidane, Raúl, Ronaldo, Guti, Solari, Owen... The manager was Juande Ramos. Only three of those players remain today. Therefore, how could anyone say that that defeat has anything at all in common with this one?
At today's rate of change, all that remains from many teams in four or five years is the name, the fans and (not always) the stadium, yet still pundits and fans tend to treat clubs as if they were people, with a set personality. League seasons are compared often to races, with teams "saving their strength for the final sprint", as if dropping three points in October was part of a plan to be fresher in May in the same way a marathon runner starts calmly in the middle of the group, refusing to shoot away from the pack at the beginning. This just doesn't apply, and much less at Real, with multiple changes of managers and presidents to add to the mix.
And yet, something's the matter with these multiple Real Madrids (I'll refer to 'them', in the plural) of the last few years, all affected by the same malaise. Their bad showing in cup competitions is reaching ridiculous depths, with two consecutive eliminations in the last two Copas del Rey against third division teams - and in two-legged ties, too. Is it the stellar collection of names in each squad? How can that be a bad thing? Is it the pressure? Maybe, but other teams have it too. I just think that this is six separate competitions, and that's all. These things happen in sport, and the Champions League has become a very difficult competition to navigate, where no-one is safely through on paper. Chelsea under Roman Abramovich haven't been able to win it yet, and by now any out of at least ten names could win it every year. It is that close.
Of course, Barcelona's triumph last season will forever be the benchmark against which all excuses will be turned into rubbish. They were able win everything in sight, so if you want to be remembered, you need trophies. Football hasn't got time any more for romantic losers like the Brazil of 1982. Only the winners remain in people's minds, and only brilliant ones at that.
For that to happen in 2010, Real still have ahead of them one of the most difficult tasks in world football, which is winning the Spanish league. Difficult not because of the brilliance of the other 19 teams in it (although they are as good at their level as any other top nation's), but because Barcelona stand in the way. Going back to the running metaphores, it's like trying to win a 100-metre race with Usain Bolt in it: achieving the second best time in history won't be enough. Before you start rubbishing Real, let's remember that their 62 points in 25 matches would make them comfortable leaders in any other domestic league. Only, against Barça, they must feel like Tyson Gay.
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