Real Madrid’s first La Liga title in three seasons and just its third in a dozen campaigns, finalized with Thursday’s 2-1 victory over Villareal and emphasized by Barcelona’s simultaneous 2-1 home loss to Osasuna, was notable for the chaos in which Real thrived. In spite of another dramatic season exacerbated by a three-month layoff for the coronavirus pandemic, Zinedine Zidane’s side won 10 straight league matches after the restart, leaving Barca in its wake and claiming its record 34th Spanish title.
But it was remarkable for the sheer staying power of the core of this Real side as well. In Real’s starting lineup on Thursday were Sergio Ramos, in his 15th season at the club; Karim Benzema, in his 11th; Rafael Varane, ninth; Luka Modric, eighth; Casemiro, eighth, minus a season on loan at FC Porto; Dani Carvajal, in his 7th; and Toni Kroos, in his sixth campaign.
On the bench were Gareth Bale and Isco, both finishing up their seventh seasons. In the stands, the injured Marcelo has now been with Real for 14 seasons.
Those in at least their seventh season — all of them but Kroos, in other words — will have lifted an astounding four Champions League titles with the club, in addition to four Club World Cups, a Copa del Rey, three UEFA Super Cups, two Supercopa de Espanas and, now, two La Liga titles.
The longevity of this group — which was largely headlined, for nine seasons, by Cristiano Ronaldo, before his 2018 departure to Juventus — stands in stark contrast to the club’s reputation for cycling through players at a stunning rhythm. For all of the club’s locker room politics, for the zeal with which club president Florentino Perez has historically collected new superstars in order to head off challenges to his power, this same band has withstood season after season in the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu pressure cooker. And considering that Ramos, Kroos, Modric, Bale and Marcelo are all on the wrong side of the 30, that, too, is unexpected.
This dynastic run has never gotten the appreciation of some of the swaggering Barca teams it has gone up against. Real hasn’t redefined any stylistic aspect of the sport, after all, or created a player development paradigm for others to aspire to. Real has just been enduringly competitive and competent.
It was fitting, then, that the first goal on Thursday should come from a penetrating Modric move up the middle, before he laid off for Benzema to finish clinically when faced with goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo in the 29th minute.
And that the second goal was produced by Ramos’s marauding run in the 73rd minute, whereupon he was brought down in Villarreal’s box by Sofian Chakla.
Ramos tried to get fancy by laying off his penalty kick for the onrushing Benzema, who swept it home. The latter encroached on the box, but so had a defender, meaning the kick was re-taken, this time by Benzema himself.
The Frenchman converted a second time to double the score.
Vicente Iborra saved Villarreal’s honor with an 84th-minute goal on a delicately nodded header when Ramos kept him onside.
For most of the game on a blisteringly hot night — registering some 91 degrees Fahrenheit in spite of the 9 p.m. local kickoff — Real was in control, even if it produced little by way of scoring chances. Besides, that is, a third-minute chip by Dani Carvajal, which didn’t fool Asenjo, and Toni Kroos’s late rocket, which smacked off the crossbar.
Villarreal was mostly happy to spend its time absorbing pressure. Perhaps it was satisfied with the knowledge that its fifth place all but assured it of a spot in the Europa League next year, but that the Champions League places were locked up by others already. But once Iborra put a result back within reach, Villarreal undertook a late assault that very nearly yielded an equalizer, were it not for some strong work by goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, in spite of the nasty knock to the head he had taken earlier in the second half.
Real scoring its winner from the spot won’t help to quell the dismay around the league that the club from the capital keeps getting awarded penalty kicks. Nor will the fact that Real was granted a re-take. But none of that should diminish the job Zidane and his side did to close the gap with Barca and then win the title with some degree of comfort.
This generation of Real players deserved to lift another domestic league title. There is no disputing that, with their experience and savvy, they capitalized on the shambles that has enveloped their eternal rivals in Catalonia. And even if they often gutted out a lot of narrow results, their new trophy will take up just as much space in the case as all the others.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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