La Liga ended up a case of so near and yet so far for Real Madrid, despite having been quite far away indeed from Barcelona for much of the season. From 10 points back, in third, Los Blancos, via a change in Coach and a win at Camp Nou, pushed the champions all the way.
Rafa Benitez was appointed in June and the complaints started almost immediately. The genial and popular Carlo Ancelotti was sacked – Florentino Perez himself admitting there wasn’t a good reason why – and the harder-to-get-along-with Benitez was hired. Club and Coach never seemed a good fit. This is Madrid, the home of more creative and attacking players than is strictly necessary, and the style of play favoured by Benitez was always likely to be an issue.
So it proved. Benitez had to fend off questions – or should that be accusations – over his perceived ‘defensive’ nature almost every time he spoke to the media. And then when Benitez did let loose with the team the Madrid Press wanted, against Barcelona in the Santiago Bernabeu Clasico, the result was a thorough routing. Casemiro dropped out and Barca were three goals to the good inside an hour. Even before the visit of the Catalans, Zinedine Zidane, Ancelotti’s former assistant and the trainer of the Castilla team, was being touted as a replacement. The gossip just got louder.
Benitez held on until early January, when Perez made the call to dispense with the ex-Napoli boss after a 2-2 draw with Valencia. Zidane came in and Madrid lost only one of their following 20 Primera games, and won the final 12. Barcelona were six points clear after the first Clasico and 10 points to the good by the time of the second, in early April, but only one by the time the final ball was kicked.
Whatever the reason for the upturn – a mellower dressing-room atmosphere as Benitez reportedly fell out with Sergio Ramos, James Rodriguez and Cristiano Ronaldo, among others – or Zidane’s galvanising affect, it nearly produced the most unlikely of titles. Madrid were third in a three-horse race but only pipped to the post by a nose when all was said and done. Winning at Camp Nou undoubtedly helped – it appeared to rock Barca as much as it boosted Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo’s decisive goal five minutes from time almost proving pivotal to the season.
But when Barca won at Granada on the final day, Madrid’s chance of domestic silverware disappeared. The Copa del Rey went long before that point, Madrid kicked out of the competition after a farce involving Denis Cheryshev at Cadiz. Cheryshev had a ban to serve, left over from last season when he was at Villarreal, but he played anyway and the 19-time winners were banished.
Europe was the high point under Benitez, safe progress through to the knockout rounds against the not-very-challenging group of Paris Saint-Germain, Shakhtar Donetsk and Malmo, the latter hammered 8-0 at the Bernabeu and only two points from 18 dropped. Zidane picked up the baton, easing past Roma, recovering after a quarter-final first leg defeat to Wolfsburg through a Ronaldo hat-trick, and dispatching Manchester City with little fuss. Neighbours Atletico Madrid provide the final opposition, for the second time in three years.
An 11th European Cup would see 2015-16 go down as a success for Madrid and could convince Perez to keep Zidane on for another year, or whatever plan is in place could be ripped up if Los Colchoneros are celebrating in Milan. Madrid, it feels, stumbled into second place, happening upon a formula that works but might not be maintained.