COLUMN: Real Madrid have their Galacticos, but this season belongs to the glue guys

Real Madrid on Saturday won the UEFA Champions League again, because of course they did. As an Atletico Madrid socio, I am naturally averse to watching Madrid lift this trophy as frequently as I have – now six times in 11 years, including twice at my club’s expense – but the fact that Los Blancos just keep winning this competition over and over again, quashing rumours of their demise and giving rise to an air of inevitability that didn’t exist for decades, is an impressive feat in and of itself.

Winning the European Cup again this year, following a 2-0 win over unlucky but undeserving Borussia Dortmund, is arguably Real Madrid’s most awe-inspiring Champions League win under manager Carlo Ancelotti. Madrid lost the expected goal battle in two of its three knockout ties, in addition to the final at Wembley Stadium. Ancelotti had to navigate an injury list that would have doomed any other side in the European elite – for long stretches this season, Madrid did not have Vinicius Junior, Thibaut Courtois, Eder Militao, David Alaba, Nacho Fernandez, Arda Guler… and even Jude Bellingham could not escape the injury bug, as he played through a shoulder injury against his former club Dortmund.

But you know who was almost always available for Madrid this season? Antonio Rudiger, the unsung hero of Los Vikingos, who spent this campaign solidifying himself as one of the top central defenders of this decade. From humble beginnings at Berliner club academies, Rudiger has long since emerged as a top-drawer defender, and he now owns two Champions League winner’s medals.

Rudiger has just completed a massive season – at the age of 31, perhaps the best he’s ever had, save an increase in his fouls (26) and yellow cards (seven) in league play. The big German made 48 appearances (with 45 starts) in all competitions, and he was often Real Madrid’s sole healthy/available natural central defender at the heart of Ancelotti’s 4-3-3 formation. Rudiger anchored a defense that shipped only 23 goals this season when he was on the pitch and 26 total  – 11 fewer than La Liga’s next-closest side, Athletic Club.

Rudiger was even better in the Champions League – the competition that matters to Real Madrid more than any other. He played every game but one, completing more than 1,000 minutes without being booked (accruing only six fouls along the way). Alongside captain Nacho, Rudiger led Madrid’s resistance against Manchester City’s unrelenting pressure in the second leg of the quarterfinals – a win on penalties which, looking back, practically allowed Madrid to put a hand on the trophy.

There is never a shortage of storylines or palace intrigue at the Santiago Bernabeu. In addition to lifting the European Cup for a record 15th time, Real Madrid have just welcomed Kylian Mbappe, whose arrival in La Liga signals a likely period of domestic hegemony for 36-time league champions – even after legendary midfielder Toni Kroos’ shock decision to retire. Madrid’s stars always shine brightly – Vinicius scored in his second UCL final on Sunday, while Bellingham assisted that goal – but president Florentino Perez learned hard lessons from the failures of the Galactico era in the 2000s.

This period of Real Madrid success/dominance has not exclusively been written by its superstar players. It has been written through contributions from its unheralded players – in American sports parlance, “glue guys.” Ferland Mendy, ever-resilient in the face of rumours about his departure, is now a two-time Champions League winner. The sometimes-maligned Lucas Vazquez is a five-time UCL winner. Dani Carvajal’s form dipped and rose again; he has now won this competition six times. Ditto for Nacho, who will pursue a new adventure this summer and leave his boyhood club after getting the chance to skipper it.

Combining the sparkle of its elite attackers with a number of rugged defenders has created this Madrid: fifty-five games played and as many trophies as defeats all season (two). And in a season when Ancelotti’s defense was whittled down to its barest bones, Rudiger stood the tallest, affirming himself as an all-world centre-back in his prime. 

Tags Antonio Rudiger Champions League Real Madrid

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