The Champions League returns this week following a two month break. Once again, the question on every football fan's lips is who will be champion of Europe?
The last four winners have all been Spanish sides, with Barcelona winning in the midst of Real Madrid's three in four years. There can be little argument Los Blancos have been top of the heap after that run. Until Madrid beat Juventus in last year's final, no club in the Champions League era had successfully defended the crown. You must go as far back as Arrigo Sacchi's AC Milan side that won in 1989 and 1990 to find a team that had ruled Europe for two years in succession.
The Merengues have excelled since Zinedine Zidane was appointed as manager in January 2016. Despite a disappointing beginning to the 2017/18 campaign, both domestically and in the group stage, Real finds itself seven games from becoming the first team in history to win three consecutive European crowns on two occasions. Ajax Amsterdam and Bayern Munich both won three in a row in the 1970s. Real Madrid themselves won the first five editions of the European Cup from 1956-60. Is such a momentous achievement in Zidane's side this season?
There's no doubt that Real is among the teams that can win the Champions League. In fact, the team's up-and-down performance this campaign renders it the only title they can realistically capture.
Player for player, Real Madrid can line up with any squad. It has world class players all over the field. That said, those players have struggled with injury and form. Domestically they are 17 points behind Barcelona. Three weeks ago they were eliminated in the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey in embarrassing fashion by Leganes. Blame has been cast in many directions. Mostly, however, it has landed at the manager's feet.
Zizou had a wonderful first 18 months in charge. When he took over, the club was in a similar position to its current strait. Struggling in the league, out of the Copa (due to an infamous disqualification after playing a suspended Denis Cheryshev), the Frenchman moved up from Real Madrid Castilla, the B side, to replace Rafael Benitez. He things turned around immediately. Barcelona still won the league but the gap closed and Zidane took Real to its 11th Champions League title. Last season, he went one better, reclaiming La Liga supremacy while defending his Champions League crown.
What has gone wrong this season? At first, Zidane didn't make that many changes from what Benitez had been doing. He freed up the attack somewhat but the biggest difference was his command as a respected club legend. Now that he has been in the job for over two years, his personnel decisions, letting veteran leadership go without singing cover, has people wondering if he's caught the infamous third season syndrome? Technically, it's only been one full campaign and two halves, so it might be a sophomore slump. Tough to tell.
If the pressure wasn't ratcheted up sufficiently, Zidane is walking into the most difficult draw he could have been given in this round: Paris Saint-Germain. PSG has been desperate to take their reputation to the next level in recent years. It hasn't come off but the Qatari-owned club has gone all in to the tune of €400 million on Neymar and Kylian Mbappe to make it happen. Zizou's squad will have its hands full.
With stratospheric expectations at both clubs, the tie is shaping up as one where the losing manager will be shown the door. A career-ending match for you WWE fans. If Madrid can find ts way past PSG, it can beat anyone. The problem is inconsistency has been its biggest enemy in 2017/18. If the players fail to show up in a game against any of Europe's giants, a third successive Champions League title can be counted out.