There comes a time when it should dawn on you that the players and teams you are watching before your very eyes rank alongside the all-time greats.
This realisation is as much about the observer as the teams and players observed and requires clarity and decisiveness in opinion-making.
It requires fans to be able to stand back and be solid in their convictions that, yes, this team or this player is the best and would probably be the best in any era.
When watching certain players this is not too difficult to manage. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are held to be better than any player that has gone before.
Team-wise, it has become widely accepted that Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team from the years 2008-2012 were the best.
However disorientating it might be to have two all-time great teams coming one almost immediately after the other, we are now forced to consider the reality that Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid might already be better.
With the squad he has at his disposal, given their ages, there is no question that Zidane will have two or three years to verifiably prove that his team is the best and the signs are already there that his side could well put Pep’s in the shade.
For 27 years the record stood. No team in the European Cup or Champions League could retain the trophy. That was until Zidane came along and dismantled that record in little more than a year in charge.
He didn’t request exorbitant sums to carry it out. Indeed, he has spent quite a bit less than any other Real Madrid manager of the modern era. He turned a healthy profit this summer and last, and won those two Champions Leagues with largely the same squad.
The odd blending of young talent here – in Marco Asensio – the odd tweaking of a system there – integrating Isco into the midfield – has proven that there need not be a huge ideological uproot in order to create history.
Then there’s the small matter of Real winning their first Spanish and European double in nearly 60 years. Many have tried, many have failed. It took this squad of players, bonded together by Zidane’s gentle touch, to write a new chapter in Madrid history. No one would back them against sealing another this season.
Madrid appear to be on a higher plane than any other domestic challenger and any other aspirant to their European throne too. There is a fundamental simplicity to the type of football Zidane has requested they play.
There is a big echo in the work of Carlo Ancelotti in his system. He doesn’t ask his players to adapt to his preferences; instead he plays to their strengths.
Zidane is no zealot. He moves between systems, subtly, without dizzying his players with a raft of demands. He lets them go out there to showcase their qualities.
He now has the best centre-back in the world in Sergio Ramos, the best left-back in Marcelo, the best midfielder in Luka Modric, the best striker in Cristiano Ronaldo and the best young player in Asensio.
This is a liberated Real Madrid, utterly transformed from the day Zidane arrived. Madrid have such a characteristic habit of self-sabotage that it was hard to think anything other than implosion when Zidane was hastily announced as the replacement for Rafael Benitez.
Rafa had ridden roughshod over a group of talented if egotistical players who decided to quit on him. Zidane, with scarcely the experience or pedigree of a top-level coach, was drafted in.
Since then, Madrid went 40 games unbeaten in La Liga – setting a new record – and won seven major trophies, placing the Frenchman fourth in the all-time Madrid honours list after barely 18 months in charge.
He’s promoting from within and eschewing massive transfer fees for players which some clubs hope are the quick hit needed to find ecstasy. He is content to work with players he knows and likes – and who look up to him – which settles the squad, gives it continuity and trust inside the group. It is a very traditional method of managing the biggest example of a 21st century club out there.
But it’s not simply a matter of Zidane having made Real great. The players have to take the bulk of the credit. Whether it’s controlling the pace of matches through the wizardry of Modric, Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Isco or striking on the counter with the pace of Marcelo and Ronaldo, these men provide the template of how to play football in this era, just like Guardiola’s team did for the first time nearly a decade ago.
To promote this Real to the rank of Guardiola’s world-beaters is not to diminish the status of Barcelona. They were great; the greatest club team the world had ever seen.
They democratised a game that had seen the fittest, the fastest and the biggest come out on top. They struck a blow for the little guy – the Xavis, the Iniestas and the Messis – who were not bestowed physical gifts but cerebral ones. They showed it didn’t matter how big you were if you were well-drilled and skilful then you could compete right at the highest levels.
There was a reinstatement of the ideals of Barcelona with youth products like Pedro and Sergio Busquets promoted and Gerard Pique brought back to the club.
Every other top team looked at what Barcelona were doing and attempted to implement it themselves. Tiki-taka became the only show in town.
The success of Zidane’s Real Madrid does owe plenty to that Barca – you could imagine that midfield plus Asensio all playing in blue and red – but this is a team out on its own.
It relies less on one overarching philosophy to which all the players should adhere than it does to promotion of their intuitive skill and understanding.
It is a group which survives the absence of its most potent member in Ronaldo. It is a group which has the world looking around for a real challenger.
It would need to be a very good day for any other team and a very bad one for Real Madrid to see them defeated in any final.
It would take a monumental effort to prevent them from winning their third Champions League title in a row.
While right now these efforts to compare them to that great Barca might be immature, would anyone argue the legitimacy of their legacy if they perfected the trifecta?
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