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How Real Madrid got back on top of LaLiga


Real Madrid have been crowned LaLiga champions for the 36th time in their history.

Such is Madrid’s level of dominance at home and abroad over the course of their illustrious history, it’s hard to ever describe their success as coming against the odds.

However, the past 12 months have seen an incredible turnaround. After Xavi’s Barcelona romped to LaLiga glory, Manchester City hammered Madrid in Europe and Karim Benzema sought pastures new in Saudi Arabia, it was hard to foresee us arriving at this point.

Along with the LaLiga trophy returning to the Santiago Bernabeu, Los Blancos have a shot at a record-extending 15th Champions League title. 

So how did Ancelotti and his players do it? It’s hard to start the story anywhere else than with a certain young Englishman who is now the toast of Madrid.

MORE: Bayern and Madrid all square after Champions League semifinal first leg

Despite the club’s long-held reputation as the home for football’s biggest stars, few of them hit the ground running at Real Madrid. The pressure and expectation can be smothering. Cristiano Ronaldo didn’t enjoy a LaLiga Clasico win until his sixth attempt. Even Zinedine Zidane took a while to convince Madridistas he was all that.

Jude Bellingham taking on Zidane’s famous No.5 shirt was a statement of intent and the supreme confidence of the England midfielder meant it has never weighed heavily. Align unbending self-belief with an enviable array of technical and physical qualities and you have a transformative player.

The €103m signing from Borussia Dortmund scored on his LaLiga debut against Athletic Bilbao, followed that up with a brace against Almeria and never looked back. Bellingham’s arms outstretched celebration became iconic and a meme – whatever means more nowadays – as he raced to 17 goals in all competitions before Christmas.

The standout moment was Bellingham’s first Clasico. Madrid were 1-0 down away from home when he scored a long-range screamer that he followed up with an injury-time winner. He also scored at the death to win the Bernabeu Clasico last month and bring the title within touching distance. Even at this club that is the dream of so many players, Bellingham’s first season has rarely felt anything less than fantastical.

Bellingham has 10 more goals than he ever managed in a Bundesliga season and has scored four Champions League goals, the same amount he managed during his Championship career with Birmingham City. Everyone knew Madrid were signing an exceptional talent; no one knew they were signing a goalscoring animal. Well, okay, one man did. Put your eyebrow down, Carlo.

Losing the title to Barcelona and being thrashed in a Champions League semifinal is not the sort of ordeal Real Madrid coaches survive. But Ancelotti is not most Madrid coaches. The man who won La Decima came back for a second spell and was widely presumed to be on the decline. He now has a second LaLiga title in three seasons and an extended contract until 2026. The manner in which he got to that new deal is remarkable in itself, having been heavily linked with the Brazil national team job. Essentially, Ancelotti entered into a power play with club president Florentino Perez and won. Again, Don Carlo is not most Madrid coaches.

At a time when ideologically driven tacticians with bold footballing visions dominate the top jobs, Ancelotti’s lightness of touch and flexible pragmatism has felt like something from another time. Benzema’s void was not one the affable veteran Joselu was ever likely to fill on his own. Madrid fans reared on galacticos would not stand for that. So Ancelotti delved into his old Milan tactical playbook and dusted off the midfield diamond to unleash Bellingham as a roving attacker in between split strikers Rodygo and Vinicius Junior. The Brazil duo have 38 goals between them.

Madrid’s dressing room is habitually a tempestuous place. You can’t usually move for briefings and bitter counter-briefings in the Spanish capital’s sports dailies. But that noise is almost impossible to find this season. Real Madrid is a happy place to work and much of the credit must go to their emotionally intelligent and always tactically shrewd leader.

The environment Ancelotti cultivated has led to some very un-Madrid outcomes. A defensive injury crisis did not cause the team to buckle. It simply made a hero out of Antonio Rudiger and whichever warm body was available to line up with him at centre-back. The Germany international wasn’t around for the visit of Girona in a top-of-the-table clash in February. Dani Carvajal partnered Aurelien Tchouameni in the heart of defence and Madrid won 4-0 (of course Bellingham scored twice).

Behind a makeshift backline, long-time understudy Andriy Lunin has become first-choice goalkeeper and a Champions League penalty shootout hero. The formidable Federico Valverde is never less than tireless off the right of Madrid’s midfield and appears to be playing in at least two positions during most matches. He symbolises this team’s selflessness and how they are greater than the sum of their parts.

If this sounds like some sort of post-galacticos eutopia, then hold your tinto de verano. Finally, it looks like Kylian Mbappe is actually coming. The historically familiar spectacle of a balanced Madrid team being pulled and prodded in various directions to accommodate the latest superstar will repeat itself. Last year, Mbappe could have made a bedraggled team his own. But Bellingham did that with Ancelotti’s guiding hand. When the player their president desires the most arrives, Madrid must not lose the qualities that propelled them to glory this season.

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