The loss of Cristiano Ronaldo and subsequent loss of identity makes it easy for Madrid fans to forget how much history their team made throughout the decade, particularly from 2015 to 2018, winning three Champions League titles in a row to cement their place in history.
A feat not achieved since Bayern Munich in the 1970s required much more work than the end product suggests.
2015 saw former Valencia and Liverpool manager Rafa Benítez take charge of a Madrid team that had lost to Juventus in the semi-finals of the previous Champions League campaign, and finished second behind Barcelona in La Liga. To say Madrid could not afford to go another season without a title would be an understatement; they needed to win, and they needed to win urgently. Lackluster performances domestically and in Europe would see Benítez fired by the new year and replaced by World Cup champion Zinedine Zidane. Zidane was an unproven coach who’s only experience came from managing Madrid’s B team. Nevertheless, many ultimately agreed that he would be able to command the respect of the dressing room due to his magnificent career on the pitch.
Madrid traveled to Rome in February to face a fiery Italian squad that would be looking to score on the counter. Ronaldo put this hope to bed with his infamous strike in the first half; alongside Jesé Rodríguez, they were able to win the away fixture 2-0, and secure another 2-0 victory at home to win the fixture 4-0 on aggregate.
The quarter finals would see them fall 2-0 to Vfl Wolfsburg in Germany. Ronaldo would once again come up huge for los blancos, scoring a hat-trick in the home fixture to reverse the tie and win the fixture 3-2 on aggregate. Madrid would then go on to comfortably beat Manchester City 1-0 over both legs to face Atlético Madrid in the final.
This Madrid derby would be a rematch of the 2013-14 Champions League final between the two sides, where Real Madrid won 4-1. Real would dominate the early stages of the match, with Sergio Ramos scoring off a Toni Kroos free kick. Yannick Carrasco would score in the late stages of the second half for Atlético to tie it up at one a piece. A scoreless extra time would lead to a penalty shoot out that was won by Real off a Juanfran miss, obtaining their 11th Champions League in history.
Zidane went into his second season in charge at Real facing many doubters who questioned if Madrid’s winning form was due to his tactical excellence as a coach, or the result of having world class talent in Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, and Karim Benzema. Nevertheless, Zidane would provide Madrid with one of the greatest campaigns in the history of the club.
Madrid’s first opponent would be Napoli in the round of sixteen, winning 3-1 at home in the first leg thanks to goals from Benzema, Kroos, and Casemiro. Madrid would comfortably win the second leg 3-1 in Naples and 6-2 on aggregate.
Ronaldo would come up huge in the first leg of the quarterfinals in Germany, securing a brace and 2 away goals for Madrid, winning the fixture 2-1. Madrid would then go on to defeat Bayern 4-2 at home in the second fixture and 6-3 on aggregate. Ronaldo would again pull off a world class performance, bagging a hat-trick to secure their place in the semi-finals.
Another Madrid derby would manifest itself as Real faced Atlético. Ronaldo would convincingly give Real the victory with another superhero like performance, securing another hat-trick to give them a 3-0 home win. The second leg would see Los Rojiblancos score two early goals by Saúl and Antoine Griezmann to give them an early 3-2 lead. However, Isco would come up huge for Real, bagging an away goal in the dying minutes of the first half to put the match out of reach and give the All Whites the victory 4-2 on aggregate.
Yet again, Ronaldo would provide an otherworldly performance against Juventus in the final, scoring twice alongside Casemiro and Marco Asensio to give Madrid the 4-1 victory, winning their 12th Champions League overall, and becoming the first team to defend their title in the Champions League Era. Moreover, they were able to secure the domestic double by prevailing over Barcelona to win the league, an achievement never previously achieved by Real.
Madrid would look to build off their success going into the 2017-18 campaign, knowing how difficult it would be to live up to the expectations created from the previous year’s performances.
Madrid’s form going into February was, to say the least, terrible, losing El Clasico against rivals Barcelona 3-0 and drawing against winnable opponents in Fuenlabrada in Copa del rey and Celta Vigo in the league. Their home fixture against Paris Saint-Germain, with new signings Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, would be a chance to prove that the Champions League was still Los Blancos competition.
Adrien Rabiot would score early to give the Parisians the lead, but not before Ronaldo bagged home a penalty in the dying moments of the first half, and scored again in the second to give Real the 2-1 lead. Marcelo would then get a third in the 90th minute to give them a comfortable 3-1 lead going into the second leg. Ronaldo and Casemiro would score two away goals for Los Blancos at the Parc Des Princes to secure the 5-2 victory over both legs. This tie would prove to be crucial in motivating Madrid throughout the rest of the season, asserting themselves as kings of the most competitive competition in world football.
The quarter finals against Juventus would see Ronaldo bag two goals, with one being a phenomenal bicycle kick at the top of the box that brought Juventus fans to their feet in applause. Marcelo would again add a third to secure a 3-0 first leg victory. Juventus’s performance in the second leg would bring drama to the tie, however, with Mario Mandžukic scoring two headers and a mistake by Keylor Navas gifting Blasie Matuidi an easy score to tie it up at three. The 93rd minute would see the referee gift Real a penalty after a challenge in the back by Medhi Benatia, with an irate Gianluigi Buffon being shown a red after expressing his anger towards the referee. Wojciech Szczęsny would come in and attempt to save Ronaldo’s strike to no avail, with Madrid advancing to the semi-finals on a 4-3 victory over both ties.
Traveling to Munich, Marco Asensio would prove his worth, coming off the bench in the second half to give Madrid their second goal and a 2-1 first leg victory. Arjen Robben would get a penalty for Bayern in the second leg, with Robert Lewandowski slotting it in and putting the match at two a piece. Just like the previous two campaigns, however, Ronaldo would score a crucial header for Madrid in the late second half to give Real the 3-2 lead. However, Sergio Ramos would make a costly error, slotting it into his own net and tying it up on away goals. Yet again, Ronaldo would score a brace in extra time, securing a hat-trick and the victory for Madrid.
The final saw a fiery Liverpool side face Real, hoping to attain some sort of silverware after failing to win the Premier League. Mohammed Salah would go off early with a shoulder injury, and two disastrous errors by goalkeeper Karius would give Madrid the victory, behind a Bale brace and Benzema goal, securing the three-peat and 13th Champions League title in club history.
Ronaldo’s performances throughout this period are something that may never be seen from a forward again, routinely coming up big for Madrid in crucial moments. Throughout the three years, Ronaldo reached 600 career goals across all competitions, three Ballon d’Or’s, and became the first player to score in three finals during the Champions League era. Moreover, Zidane was able to win consecutive titles with the same group of players, an unprecedented achievement that will most likely never be seen again as management focuses on consistently making changes to keep up with the changing climate in football.
Overall, the 2010’s will remember Real Madrid as the kings of Europe behind — arguably — the greatest player in their history, Ronaldo.