We can’t talk about the Champions League, which began this week, without talking about Real Madrid. After winning two consecutive championships and three of the past four, it’s undeniable that Real has supplanted Barcelona as the world’s best team. Now the club has to be setting its sights on the seemingly impossible: equaling the five consecutive European Cups that the club won between 1956 and 1960.
We can’t talk about Real Madrid without talking about two players. First, Cristiano Ronaldo, the world’s best player apart from Lionel Messi. Ronaldo, who’ll be 33 this winter, has undergone a transformation as he’s gotten older. Once, he was the all-conquering winger, embarrassing fullbacks and knifing inside to score. As he has aged, he has drifted further and further toward becoming a straight-up center forward, a position that allows him to defend less — never his strong suit anyway — and still provide the same immense scoring threat.
Ronaldo has always been good for a goal per game, but in last season’s Champions League knockout rounds he outdid even himself. Five goals over two legs against Bayern Munich. A hat trick against Atletico Madrid in the semifinals. Two more goals in the final against Juventus. It was an astonishing run, and if Real will win a third straight title, it starts with him.
Then there’s Zinedine Zidane, who once dominated the midfield in a Real white jersey and now orchestrates the team from the coaches’ bench. Los Blancos have always struggled to integrate many superstars into one squad, but Zidane — once the best player on a Real Madrid side full of stars — seems to have cracked the code. “Zizou” took over halfway through 2015-16, immediately turned around a team in chaos and has won two European Cups and a La Liga title in a year and a half.
We could talk about challengers to Real’s dominance but, in truth, they seem a step behind. Paris Saint-Germain has spent obscene Qatari oil riches to assemble an unstoppable forward line, consisting of Neymar, Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe. But there are too many questions about the defense and manager Unai Emery to install PSG as favorite.
The rest of the contenders seem unworthy to be in the conversation. Barcelona was thrown into chaos as PSG stole Neymar away this summer and didn’t do enough to replace him. Bayern Munich seems to be a year further away from being a contender, not a year closer. Three English clubs — Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City — have designs on European glory, but the grind of the Premier League has lately been enough to torpedo any English team’s chances.
When it comes to the Champions League this season, then, all we can talk about is whether any team can possibly beat Real Madrid. Unfortunately for other clubs, the answer is it’s doubtful.
• A year ago, the Gophers soccer team lost only one Big Ten game — to Wisconsin, in overtime. This year’s conference schedule begins with the rematch (4 p.m. Saturday, no TV). Minnesota had a relatively successful nonconference run, winning four and drawing two of its seven matches. But despite being the defending conference champions, the Gophers were picked to finish fifth in the preseason Big Ten coaches’ poll.
• Minnesota businessman Elam Baer bought National Women’s Soccer League franchise FC Kansas City last offseason, but it’s been nothing but struggles for FCKC this year. Last week, on national television, FCKC drew just 963 fans, an embarrassment even though the club was already at the bottom of the attendance standings. Kansas City won’t make the playoffs, and some are starting to call for the franchise to be moved.
• Toronto FC has already clinched an MLS playoff spot, with six games to go. With three victories over the next few weeks, the Reds would finish the regular season with the most points in league history.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Bundesliga: Mainz at Bayern Munich, 8:30 a.m. Saturday, FS1. This will be striker Robert Lewandowski’s 100th Bundesliga game for Bayern Munich, a stretch in which he has scored 80 league goals. At the moment, though, he’s mired in controversy over public criticism of Bayern’s lack of PSG-style huge-money signings. There’s drama at the Allianz Arena.
Premier League: Arsenal at Chelsea, 7:30 a.m. Sunday, CNBC. You’d have to go back six years to find the last time Arsenal managed a victory at Stamford Bridge, and Arsenal has barely scored a goal at Chelsea since. The Gunners defeated the Blues in the FA Cup Final and the Community Shield over the past 12 months, triumphs unlikely to be repeated Sunday.
Premier League: Everton at Manchester United, 10 a.m. Sunday, NBC Sports. Everton is in the middle of a brutal stretch. Away games at Chelsea and Manchester City and a home match against Tottenham have brought the Toffees just one point. In midweek they endured an awful European loss. A trip to Man United, still undefeated and atop the league, won’t help.
Bundesliga: Cologne at Borussia Dortmund, 11 a.m. Sunday, FS2. Dortmund may be atop the Bundesliga for the moment, but it’s been a rough week, with a frustrating draw against Freiburg followed by a Champions League loss at Tottenham. Cologne, meanwhile, lost in Europe as well. But 20,000 fans showed up in London, creating an energy around the club.