Real Madrid season review: Suffering, solidity, success – and sailors


Kylian Mbappe’s signing done, champions of Europe for a record-extending 15th time, and back on top in Spain… the season couldn’t have finished any better for Real Madrid.

But it is easy to forget they lost arguably the world’s best goalkeeper and their first-choice centre-back partnership to long-term injuries early in the campaign. Head coach Carlo Ancelotti had to adapt and got his reward with a La Liga-Champions League double along with January’s Supercopa de Espana.

Here, our Madrid correspondent Guillermo Rai looks back at a triumphant season for Ancelotti’s side.

How would you sum up their 2023-24 in 23-24 words?

Despite leading La Liga for most of the season and being crowned Champions League winners, this was a campaign of suffering for Madrid.

The moment they’ll remember the season for

It was not a convincing win, but the moment Madrid started to believe this season could be special was when they beat Manchester City on penalties in the Champions League quarter-finals in April.

Pep Guardiola’s reigning European champions were considered the team to beat after a series of blockbuster encounters in recent years. Madrid have even started to see matches with City as the “modern Clasico”, as their former player and coach, and now pundit, Jorge Valdano put it.

Madrid celebrate their shootout win against City (Federico Titone/Anadolu via Getty Images)

The first leg at the Bernabeu ended in a thrilling 3-3 draw and Rodrygo then put Madrid ahead at the Etihad in the 12th minute. But it was backs to the walls from then, with Kevin De Bruyne equalising in the 76th minute and then missing a gilt-edged chance to put City through. Goalkeeper Andriy Lunin was the hero in the shootout, taking pointers from Chelsea loanee Kepa Arrizabalaga to keep out spot kicks from Bernardo Silva and Mateo Kovacic.

Antonio Rudiger then scored the winning penalty and the defensive performance from Ancelotti’s team showed their commitment to their favourite competition.

The moment they’ll wish never happened

Nobody will want to relive the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) knee injuries suffered by goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and defender Eder Militao in August — the former happening in training two days before La Liga got underway, the latter in their opening game against Athletic Bilbao.

Madrid brought in Arrizabalaga as a replacement, but it was Lunin who made the No 1 spot his own in Courtois’ almost season-long absence. David Alaba then suffered the same injury as centre-back partner Militao in December and other players had to step up as the board decided not to sign a replacement for the Austrian in the January window.

Another moment they probably wished hadn’t happened was a Copa del Rey last-16 defeat to neighbours Atletico. Even so, that January loss did give a stretched squad a chance to rest ahead of the run-in.

But Madrid fans were most devastated to see Toni Kroos retire, with the 34-year-old German bidding an emotional farewell after 10 trophy-laden years at the Bernabeu.

Goal of the season

There were more spectacular efforts, but it’s hard to look beyond Dani Carvajal’s effort to put Madrid ahead in the Champions League final against Borussia Dortmund.

That 74th-minute header set Ancelotti’s team on the road to the trophy, eventually confirmed by Vinicius Junior’s goal to make it 2-0. The Athletic’s Ahmed Walid has analysed how the 5ft 8in (173cm) Carvajal was able to outjump everyone in Dortmund’s defence in scoring that goal.

Carvajal is not the only unlikely set-piece scorer for Madrid this season — a stoppage-time header from Lucas Vazquez, also 5ft 8in, put them top of the La Liga table before Christmas. Set pieces have been a key part of Madrid’s strategy through assistant coach Francesco Mauri.

“It was a personal intuition of mine to involve less usual players, like Carvajal or Lucas Vazquez,” he told Amazon Prime Italy in a recent interview. “Even though they are not very physical, they are very lively in the opponents’ box and they are players who really create chances.”

He was proven right at Wembley.

The stat that sums up their season

Their goals against column in La Liga: just 26 in the 38 games.

You might not associate Madrid with brilliant defending, but they have been forced to improve in that department since Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure for Juventus in summer 2018. The Portugal captain scored 25 goals or more in each of his nine La Liga seasons with Madrid, helping them build a large goal difference each year — with his goals gone, they had to get better at defending to maintain that.

Rudiger played a key role in defence (Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

They conceded by far the fewest goals in La Liga this season — 17 fewer than the next-best defence (Atletico), 18 fewer than arch-rivals Barcelona, and 20 fewer than third-placed Girona. This also helped them finish with a goal difference of 61, far ahead of Girona (39), Barca (35) and Atletico (27).

Did that really happen?

We expected Jude Bellingham to be great after arriving from Dortmund last summer for a fee that could rise to a club record — €103million (£87.6m/$111.8m at the current rates) plus 30 per cent in variables — but nobody could have expected him to be this great in his debut season.

Bellingham had never scored more than 14 goals in a season but surpassed that total by November after being given a more advanced midfield role. He finished with 23 goals and 13 assists in 42 appearances — only Vinicius Jr scored more among Madrid players (24), while nobody in the squad provided more assists.

The young Englishman was unable to keep up his remarkable goalscoring form from the first half of the season after missing games through injury and serving a suspension for dissent, but everyone at the club has been surprised by his start to life in the Spanish capital.

Best quote

Ancelotti is Italian but knows Spanish and its sayings well, after five years in charge of Madrid across his two spells. So the coach turned to a typical phrase as he poked fun at journalists before his side’s title-clinching game against Cadiz last month.

“We did so well that there are not many buts, but there are some buts,” he said. “We won, but we didn’t play very well. We scored 100 goals, but we didn’t play very well. So tell me about the sea, sailor.”

As ‘captain’ of Madrid’s project, Ancelotti was suggesting he didn’t want to listen to doubts from the ‘sailors’, or reporters, who are not at the heart of decisions. He returned to that phrase several times during the campaign.

What the president might have said to the coach after full time on the final day

“You are the best coach in the world.”

That is actually what president Florentino Perez said to Ancelotti during the Champions League celebrations at City Hall.

Ancelotti and Perez after the Champions League final (Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images)

A year ago, there were well-founded doubts about Ancelotti staying on. Madrid had just lost 4-0 to City in the semi-finals of Europe’s premier club competition and their second all-time top scorer, Karim Benzema, was leaving for Saudi Arabian side Al-Ittihad. Would he be able to rebuild?, people asked.

That is exactly what the 64-year-old did. Without ever complaining about the club’s planning — even when a request for a top-class striker such as Harry Kane was turned down last summer — Ancelotti got Madrid back to winning ways and secured a contract extension for himself until 2026.

The club consider him to be their ideal coach, despite the list of suitors who would surely want to step into the Bernabeu hot seat.

The issue that will dominate the summer

With Mbappe and Endrick both on the way this summer, the big debate will be how to fit so many star players into the attacking positions.

Those two forwards are joining a squad already packed with talent up front, including Vinicius Jr, Rodrygo and Bellingham. Brahim Diaz, the soon-to-be-made-permanent on-loan striker Joselu, and Arda Guler have all impressed when called upon, too.

The debate will not just be tactical. The arrival of a new team leader in Mbappe means a change in role for those already at Madrid and it will be interesting to see how they react in the coming months. Rodrygo has already hinted he could seek a way out if he is not given proper opportunities in the future.

Ancelotti’s diplomacy will be fundamental once again. And it helps that Madrid are in a stable moment as an institution after such a successful season.

The player who could be a breakthrough star next season

Mbappe is sure to be a headline attraction, but Endrick could be a revelation away from the spotlight.

The teenage Brazilian striker will finally join up with his new club this summer, 18 months after his signing was made official. Madrid’s coaching staff were impressed by his first appearance at the Bernabeu — a 3-3 draw between Spain and Brazil in a friendly in March, where he scored four minutes after coming on — and his personality caught their attention.

He will be one to watch.

(Top photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

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