Bale, Benzema and Cristiano - Can Real Madrid's BBC fire Ancelotti & Co. to the treble?
“Barbaric! Beastly! Colossal!” screamed the front cover of Marca. In the crowd, the night before, supporters gasped. Some shrugged their shoulders as the goals flew in, as if to say ‘well, what can you do about that?’ Odds on success were slashed. Real Madrid had just battered Schalke 6-1 in their own backyard, taking one giant leap towards the Champions League quarter-finals in the process.
The win was Real’s biggest in Europe since… last September, when they also bashed up Galatasaray 6-1 in the group stage. In Gelsenkirchen, Madrid’s six goals were shared equally between their three forwards – Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema. As such, the first letter of each word on Marca’s cover was bolded in red: BBC - Bale, Benzema, Cristiano.
Following in the English media’s footsteps of thinly-veiled deference to a government institution (the SAS and all that) the Spanish press now have a British institutional acronym of their own. The trio have helped fire Real Madrid to the top of La Liga, the Copa del Rey final and now, almost certainly, the Champions League last eight. God bless the BBC!
While it might have been expected that Real Madrid would prevail against a significantly weaker and relatively out-of-sorts Schalke, context is needed. Pre-match Spanish jitters focused on Real’s terrible record in Germany. They had won just one of their last 25 encounters against German opposition in Europe, with 18 defeats – remarkable for a club so grandiose in stature. Real’s last visit to Germany was also particularly painful, ending in tears with a 4-1 thumping by Borussia Dortmund in last season’s Champions League semi-final.
In the end, however, aside from a brilliant Iker Casillas save to prevent Schalke an equaliser in the first half, the result was never in doubt. Bale, Benzema and Cristiano – supported ably by Xabi Alonso, Angel di Maria and the excellent Luka Modric - tore through Schalke’s meek back-line time after time.
They were rampant, carving chance upon chance with the kind of raw aggression and razor-sharp cutting edge that saw their odds of winning a 10th European Cup immediately dropped. “The Conquest of Germany!” roared AS. The sentiment in Spain was clear: Real Madrid are back.
A look at the numbers in 2014 show just how brilliant they’ve been. 15 wins and one draw (against Athletic Bilbao in Nuevo San Mames, a game that saw Ronaldo sent off) since the turn of the year. Eight league games, 22 goals scored, three conceded. In the Copa del Rey, six games, six wins, 11 goals and their net breached not once has fired them to an April final against Barcelona. And then came the annihilation of Schalke.
In the 15 league games since Real Madrid lost 2-1 at Barcelona last October, Carlo Ancelotti’s team have won 13 and drawn two. Atletico Madrid are the only other team to beat Real Madrid this season in any competition. They meet this weekend in the Vicente Calderon for a derby that will be as fiercely contested as ever.
Having slipped three points behind their Madrid rivals, Diego Simeone’s men need a result to set their title challenge back on the rails after a recent slump in form. For Atleti, the derby has often been about doing what they can to make their enemies miserable by denying them success. Atleti's target this time is to nab the treasure for themselves.
In Spain, Real Madrid’s revival in fortunes has largely been attributed to the BBC – Bale, Benzema and Cristiano (the option of using Ronaldo’s surname and calling them the Be Right Backs was obviously disregarded). Between them, the trio now have 70 goals – 36 for Ronaldo, 20 for Benzema and 14 for Bale.
All three men have been on personal journeys this season that have led them to this current moment of celebration, and so the BBC tag has only recently come into wider use. At one point it looked unthinkable Benzema would even be at the Bernabeu much longer, as he struggled to reach the required level and his every performance appeared to play out to a soundtrack of boos from his own fans.
A clamour for Alvaro Morata to take the Frenchman’s place only added to the growing feeling that Benzema would leave in January, but a 20-goal haul by March is a more than respectable return for the 26-year-old and he celebrated his 100th goal for Madrid in a 5-0 win at Betis in January.
For Bale, early season injury and ineffective performances - such as that in the clasico defeat at Camp Nou when he looked a clunky and overly-expensive purchase when compared with the lithe and significantly cheaper (or so we thought at the time) Neymar, who put in a match-winning display – raised questions about the Welshman’s €91 million price tag.
Marca witheringly described Bale as ‘inconsequential’ post-match, but with his manager’s backing Bale has gradually asserted himself in Madrid. The same paper described his opening goal against Schalke as ‘a work of art.’ The Prince of Wales tag has never been too far away from being bandied around, and Bale has fought off competition from both Di Maria and cantera graduate and emerging hero Jese to underline his own importance to the team.
Ronaldo’s personal journey, meanwhile, has been less about redemption and more about acceptance and acclaim. His tears at winning the Ballon d’Or were revealing, a man so desperate to reach the pinnacle of his profession that the only place for him to go emotionally after scaling that mountain, for the first time since 2008 at Manchester United, was to openly weep.
After years of faint whisperings that Ronaldo felt unappreciated in Madrid, a new contract, the club’s full backing and an acknowledgment that he truly belongs in the pantheon of Real Madrid greats has given CR7 the air of a man who feels more settled in Spain’s capital than ever before.
The ringing tribute he received from Madridistas ahead of the Granada game post-Ballon d’Or was a visual representation of this approval for a phenomenal player who, frankly, wasn’t getting the love his outer-worldly achievements deserved.
The deconstruction of Schalke was the fourth time this season that the BBC (FFT takes no pleasure in calling them that, but them’s the breaks) all punched their name on the scoresheet in the same game – Sevilla, Almeria and Real Betis the previous victims.
Under the guidance of Ancelotti - less confrontational, more personable and generally much more amiable than his predecessor Jose Mourinho - and with a defence that looks increasingly solid by the game, Real Madrid appear to be peaking at just the right time.
Faint talk of a possible treble has been mentioned. In this form, why not? Barbaric, beastly, colossal – and, if they beat Atleti at the Calderon this weekend, quite probably champions too.