Real Madrid has waited 12 years to return to a UEFA Champions League final, but just four days ahead of the final against Atletico Madrid in Lisbon (live, FOX, Saturday, 2 p.m. ET), the preparation is not exactly going to plan.
Just a few weeks ago, after the super-impressive 5-0 semifinal aggregate win over previous tournament favorites Bayern Munich, Carlo Ancelotti’s side appeared unstoppable. Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice in the second leg in Germany, extending his record to 16 goals in this year’s competition, while Madrid had moved to an outstanding 37 goals for and just nine against so far.
Even Xabi Alonso’s yellow card, which ruled the influential midfielder out of the final, was not long dwelt upon. Madrid’s big name attack was in frightening form, its defense water-tight. The long awaited ‘Decima’ tenth European Cup was only a month away.
Thinking so positively, and so far ahead, has however proved to be a real mistake. Madrid immediately relaxed, and took just two points from its next three La Liga games, allowing lowly neighbors Atletico to win the Spanish championship despite its own late stumble.
Meanwhile Madrid’s key players also started to get ahead of themselves. Cristiano Ronaldo played only eight minutes in his side’s last three Liga games — deciding himself not to risk knee and thigh injuries in less important fixtures. Gareth Bale was ‘rested’ for two matches, as he manages a back issue. Karim Benzema missed the penultimate Liga game against Celta Vigo due to a knee problem, then strained a groin muscle in the final outing versus Espanyol. This means that Ancelotti’s ‘BBC’ attacking trident are all undercooked ahead of Saturday’s decider.
None of the three ran out with their teammates to take part in Tuesday morning’s open training session at Madrid’s ultra-modern suburban ‘Ciudad de Futbol’ training facility. The 300 assembled media reps did get to see the club’s English assistant coach Paul Clement take charge of the drills, shouting at his players to up their intensity, and congratulate any good play, all in excellent Spanish. Fellow assistant coach Zinedine Zidane played a secondary organizing role, while boss Carlo Ancelotti stood with his hands in his pockets looking on.
Halfway through Ronaldo appeared to undergo some light jogging and stretching moves to the side of the training area, as his teammates did more strenuous sprinting exercises alongside. The reigning Ballon d’Or holder later visited the mixed-zone by the pitch to explain why he had played so little football in recent weeks.
“I feel very good,” Ronaldo said. “I think I will be at 100 percent. Nobody wants to miss a final, a final you have been waiting for. Unfortunately I have had a problem, but that is normal. All players have problems. We feel pain and you believe it could lead to something else. I had doubts. [But] the important thing is how I feel [now]. There is no risk. On Saturday I will be there.”
Bale — who had been undertaking individual work in the gym — also came to speak to the assembled reporters.
“It was just a bit of recovery [work today],” the Wales captain said. “Obviously I did not play for two games prior to the weekend. But I feel good now.”
That did clear up the situation a little, but still left doubts over Benzema — as well as centerback Pepe — with just two days training left before the team leaves for Lisbon. In the upstairs press room Ancelotti tried to calm the situation.
“We just have doubts over two players,” he said. “We have to be realistic – at this moment they cannot play. We have four days, we will take the decision at the end. They are the only doubts we have for this game.”
After batting away questions about whether he might be fired should Madrid’s ‘Decima’ dreams be dashed by their lowly neighbors Atletico, the 54 year old coach was keen to get across a more positive tone.
“The atmosphere now is a lot of excitement because this trophy is very close,” Ancelotti said. “Our work in the Champions League until now has been very good, the team has done very big things in this competition. ‘La Decima’ is not an obsession, it is a great opportunity for us. We are playing the final, many other teams are watching it on TV. We have a big opportunity to enter into the history of this club.”
The experienced campaigner was of course correct. Whatever happens in Lisbon on Saturday, this Madrid season is sure to be long remembered. Bernabeu pessimists now fear this team could be about to blow a unique opportunity to win the Copa, Liga and Champions League treble.
While optimists know recent issues will be forgiven and forgotten should Ancelotti, Ronaldo and Bale deliver the long awaited Decima prize.