Gareth Bale of Real Madrid (Getty Images)
MADRID, May 20: Real Madrid face local rivals and newly crowned La Liga champions Atletico Madrid in the Champions League final in Lisbon on Saturday desperate to land their long-awaited tenth European crown.
It has been 12 years since Zinedine Zidane looked up into the drizzly Glasgow sky and connected sweetly on the volley to score one the of the great European Cup final goals to hand Real the trophy for a ninth time.
For Florentino Perez’s Galactico led project that was supposed to be merely the beginning. Zidane had followed the controversial signing of Luis Figo from eternal rivals Barcelona a year earlier and was supposed to lead a domination of Europe akin to that which saw Real become world renowned by winning the first five European Cups between 1956 and 1960.
However, in more than a decade since the club has spent over a billion euros on the likes of David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, had five presidential changes and gone through 11 managers in their quest to win the “La Decima” – their tenth European title.
Now in his second stint as president, Perez has placed his trust in the calm of Carlo Ancelotti’s proven track record in the competition after falling at the semi-final stage three years in a row in a rollercoaster period under Jose Mourinho’s stewardship.
Ancelotti could beat Mourinho into becoming the first man since Bob Paisley to win European football’s biggest prize three times as a coach having done so twice as a manager and a player with AC Milan.
The Italian quickly learned about what he has called Real’s “obsession” to win the Champions League, addressing it in numerous times throughout the campaign.
However, he has admitted that Real have paid for their focus on Champions League in recent weeks as their La Liga title hopes were wiped out by taking just two points from a possible nine in games against Valencia, Valladolid and Celta Vigo.
That dip was even more surprising as it came on the back of Real’s 4-0 thrashing of reigning European champions Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena to seal their place in the final 5-0 on aggregate.
Yet, at a club where almost every season is judged solely of the basis of success or failure in Europe, it is understandable the players concentration dipped following their destruction of Bayern.
Despite winning the Copa del Rey against Barcelona back in March, Ancelotti knows his job too could be on the line should he not bring back the cup from Lisbon.
The last manager to win the Champions League with Real, Vicente del Bosque, was promptly dismissed a year after that success in Glasgow despite winning La Liga because of their failure to retain the trophy.
The opponents come Saturday makes the clash even more important for the history of the club.
It was just last season when Real fans unfurled the latest of a number of banners mocking Atletico pleading for “a worthy rival for a decent derby”.
Atletico then went on to end a 14-year winless streak in the derby by beating Real in their own home at the Santiago Bernabeu in last year’s Copa del Rey final and have followed that up by unbelievably breaking Real and Barca’s stranglehold of La Liga.
Losing what they crave most of all in the Champions League to their poorer neighbours from across the city would be a serious blow to the morale of the self-proclaimed biggest club in the world.