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Given resources, league underachievement, assessing Real Madrid's true 'greatness'

Entering El Clasico, Real Madrid has a chance to make a definitive statement against rival Barcelona during an era in which it has grossly underachieved in La Liga given its vast resources.

Sunday should be the day when Real Madrid, effectively if not mathematically, wraps up the Spanish league title. It’s already three points clear of Barcelona with a game in hand and, if it wins El Clasico (2:45 p.m. ET, beIN Sports) against an increasingly demoralized opponent that will be without the suspended Neymar, the gap will surely be unbridgeable. The title would be the 33rd in Real Madrid’s history, but it’s first in five years, a remarkable drought for a club that has been one of the two richest in the world throughout that period.

It would be just Real Madrid’s second league title since Pep Guardiola became Barcelona manager in 2008 (with Barcelona winning six in that time, each with Real Madrid as its runner-up). Given its resources, that could seem like a story of remarkable underachievement. It has, of course, won two Champions Leagues in that time, and it is in the semifinal again this season, which is success of a sort, but really that’s a question of wealth rather than footballing acumen. Real Madrid’s story is that of the economics of modern football.

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This is the first time in a decade that the Champions League semifinals will feature neither Barcelona nor Bayern Munich. To that extent, it is a transitional season. Yet the last four still features Atletico Madrid, in its third semifinal in four seasons; Juventus, the most successful club in Italian history; and Real Madrid, in its seventh semifinal in a row. It’s hardly a shocking lineup. This is the way of the modern world, a hegemony of the rich.

It’s not just that the wealthiest clubs can buy the best players, it’s that in doing so they can stymie the development of emerging clubs. It’s a problem that has afflicted Borussia Dortmund for years, not merely losing its best players but often losing them to its biggest rival. Napoli and Roma might point to similar issues. It’s almost inconceivable that Barcelona, Bayern or Madrid could fail to reach the knockout stage of the Champions League and, once they’re there, it only takes a kind draw, a handful of lucky bounces or a couple of isolated good performances to win the competition.

While it would be misleading to say that Madrid’s Champions League victory last season, beating Roma, Wolfsburg and an anemic Manchester City in the knockout stage before a penalty shootout victory over Atletico in the final, was somehow fortunate or undeserved, it was also the least inspiring of their 11 European triumphs. There was something quotidian about it: it felt perfunctory rather than glorious. The European Cup felt like a quest, the ultimate consecration after a lengthy journey; the Champions League these days often feels like a game of pass the parcel among the superclubs.

The league is a slightly different matter and, in that context, a record of having won it only once in nine years, given the money invested, represents staggering underachievement from Real Madrid. Zinedine Zidane, of course, deserves credit for breaking that run, as he deserved credit for steering the club to that 11th Champions League. He’s overseen a record-breaking 40-game unbeaten run, while Real Madrid has scored in each of its last 55 games in all competitions. And yet still it doesn’t entirely convince.

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In eight of its last 13 games, Real Madrid has gone behind. It lost the first of that run, against Valencia, and then the 13th, in the Champions League quarterfinal against Bayern Munich–but that just took the series to extra time, when Real Madrid scored three times. Other than that, it hasn’t lost any of those games. That reflects great attacking quality and impressive levels of self-belief and determination, but, in the long term, it’s not a healthy sign. Tactically, it suggests a team that cannot control games–and that, ultimately, will be costly.

That was the lesson learned by Manchester United after it had won the treble in 1998-99 when it was exposed–by Real Madrid–in the 2000 quarterfinal. Ultimately, at the very highest level, teams cannot afford regularly to give opponents head starts. Perhaps Real Madrid will become the first side in the Champions League era successfully to defend the title, but if it does, it would be hard to imagine it stands in the pantheon anywhere near previous teams to have achieved the feat, anywhere close to the AC Milan of 1989-90, the Ajax of 1971-73, the Benfica of 1961-62 or, most pertinently, its own five-time champions of 1956-60.

Like that side of the late 50s, this is a team comprised of stars, celebrity footballers drawn by vast wealth, but the context is different. Football is systematized now, is more about the team unit, more about shape and interaction than it was then. And that, perhaps, explains why Florentino Perez’s galacticos project has been of such questionable benefit. This is his 14th season as president (in his second spell); he has so far won only three league titles despite extraordinary expenditure.

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There is a certain irony that it should be Zidane, the poster boy of the galacticos theory in Perez’s first term as president, who as a manager has brought the stability that should bring a fourth title. But then he also understood the need for grit as well as glamour, as was made clear when he opposed the sale of Claude Makelele during his time as a player at the Bernabeu. Casemiro may be a reactive solution to the issue of balance in Madrid’s midfield, one that, say, Arrigo Sacchi would reject out of hand, but it is at least a solution. There’s an irony, too, that Barcelona should have helped clear the way for Madrid by lurching towards a more celebrity-driven approach, but Zidane has taken advantage.

Is Real Madrid a good team? Obviously. Does it deserve to win La Liga? Almost certainly. Is it as good as it should be given resources? Probably not. Is it in any sense a great team? Nowhere near.