Who: Real Madrid, defending champions, currently second place in the Spanish first division (La Liga), 10-time European champions.
When: Tuesday, 2:45 p.m. Eastern against Atlético de Madrid at the Estadio Vicente Calderón.
Why: Because nobody remembers when Real Madrid always fell short of the quarterfinals.
Real Madrid is the defending UEFA Champions League champion. It’s also the club that’d won the tournament nine times before last year’s triumph, making it the most successful in Europe. It has Colombian midfield dynamo James Rodríguez, a star of last year’s World Cup, and … oh, yes, and the club’s best player is a full-time model, part-time soccer player by the name of Cristiano Ronaldo. If that name doesn’t sound familiar, you’ll recognize his abs.
- Quick guide to Tuesday’s Champions League: Atlético Madrid
It’d be easy to draw a parallel between Real Madrid and the New York Yankees, or another insanely successful professional team, but there’s an aura to the Spanish titans in this competition that defies that kind of analogy. There’s a sense of ownership over the European Cup that Real Madrid has which can’t be explained in terms of other sports. It’s not that the team always wins, it’s more that it feels like it should, even if last year’s title was its first in 12 years.
You don’t often see that combination of achievement, entitlement and expectation. It’s part of the reason why Real Madrid’s considered one of this year’s favorites, even if it’s not even leading its own domestic league.
Perhaps that’s history talking more than the present, but there’s no reason history can’t be an alley for such a successful club.
Why El Real matters: No club on Earth matters more than Real Madrid. Nobody has a trophy case as impressive as its, nobody has its history and now, nobody controls the transfer market like it does or has its star power they do. Young players all of the the world dream of playing in Merengue white. Those that don’t live in a world defined by spite. The club is without parallel.
It’s also the defending world champion, which would make any club kind of super super important, but added to Real Madrid’s recent résumé, it’s just kind of … annoying. The team went into a huge winter collapse after winning that title, but the achievement still feels all Patriots win another Super Bowl-y, and nobody’s really happy about this (especially since it brought out another U.S. sports reference – ew).
The cool in Real: Ronaldo is a pretty good start for coolness. And James isn’t a bad compliment. Nor is Gareth Bale. Iker Casillas might be the best goalkeeper of his generation, and Toni Kroos just won the World Cup. Sergio Ramos has already won the World Cup … and Champions League, the European Championship twice and La Liga four times, and he’s not even close to one of the team’s biggest stars.
There isn’t a spotlight in the world big enough for Real Madrid. The team is also unfailingly entertaining, with a lineup so attacking that it borders on suicidal. The Merengues will throw everyone forward, don’t use a true defensive midfielder and open up the match so it resembles a shooting gallery … on both sides of the field.
But more than anything, Real Madrid is trying to be the first team to ever repeat as Champions League winners. Technicality: teams have repeated as European champions, just not since UEFA’s biggest competition did it’s rebrand. But there’s nothing like seeing the greatest of feats happen for the first time, so we’re going to say this would be one.
Watch this player: You may have heard of the reigning Ronaldo. He’s only one of the best players to ever play the sport, two-time defending World Player of the Year and universal sex symbol. He is everything you have ever wanted to be in life, but distant enough to show your dreams are not real.
Ronaldo is also everything Real Madrid wants him to be, and at times needs him to be. He is breathtakingly fast, powerful, good in the air, skillful and can hammer a shot. He leads the team’s counterattack, plays the role of creator, is its leading scorer and will even go back and defend, when asked.
Whenever you watch Real Madrid, you know Ronaldo can be amazing. We’ve seen him do it for more than a decade now. And yet somehow, it is still mind-blowing, making it impossible to take your eyes off of him.
What El Real has to do: Recent head-to-head struggles be damned, Real Madrid has a mental edge after derailing Atlético in last year’s final. Now it’s the quarters: two legs, instead of one. The games will add to the list of incredible matches the teams have played over the last 18 months, most of which have been defined by whether Real Madrid can find a way through Atleti’s defense.
It’s not easy. It takes a great counterattack and some brilliant individual play to unlock a defense to incredibly organized. At its best, nobody counters better than Real Madrid, and no one has individual talent like Ronaldo, James and Bale.
But there’s no margin for error. El Real has to be at its best, its fastest, its most inventive. It will have to make our jaws drop to get past Atlético.