At face value, Thursday's hostile Copa del Rey tie -- when Real Madrid visit San Mames to face Athletic Bilbao (streaming live on ESPN+, 3:30 p.m. ET) -- is just another episode in Los Blancos' puzzling, underwhelming, love-hate affair with Spain's storied cup competition.
Viewed at a distance, Madrid's record of having won the Copa del Rey twice in the past 28 years makes absolutely no sense at all. They've often been domestically dominant across that time, boasting squads jam-packed with excellent players and, worst of all, they've had to suffer their most bitter rivals, Barcelona, make the competition their personal fiefdom over that quarter-century -- something that must chafe Madridistas badly. Thus it's a distinct oddity that since Madrid beat Zaragoza 2-0 in the 1993 final, Zaragoza, who have been adrift in the second division for the last nine seasons, have lifted the trophy three times, third-division Deportivo La Coruna have done it twice and so have Espanyol: in short, all three are modest outfits who've either equalled or beaten Los Blancos' Copa performance from then till now. (Barca have won it nine times.)
If Madrid are the club to make your heart beat madly, then there's perhaps some comfort in the fact that not only was Carlo Ancelotti the last Bernabeu coach to conquer this competition, doing it in the most dramatic fashion thanks to Gareth Bale's epoch-marking goal against Barcelona in the 2014 final, but the Italian is once again taking the task of winning this season's version extremely seriously.
Before every Cup game so far (Alcoyano and Elche away) Ancelotti's infamous caterpillar-like eyebrow has made a break for freedom, up and over his forehead, when asked if he's going to turn out a first-choice XI. "We'll field the strongest possible team," has been his standard answer, firmly delivered. "These matches are not an opportunity to 'give' minutes to inexperienced or under-used players: we want to win this cup." And despite resting a couple of superstars who truly needed the respite, not only has the Italian been true to his word, but his footballers have responded -- and hungrily, too.
Eder Militao scores an injury-time leveller to earn Real Madrid a point in a 2-2 draw against Elche.
They were 15 minutes away from suffering extra time against third division Alcoyano at the beginning of the month before erupting with a two-goal power play for the win. They had 10 men after Marcelo's red card and were losing 1-0 in extra time against relegation-threatened Elche two weeks ago before repeating the Alcoyano feat with two goals in seven minutes of the second period to advance. Ancelotti's players have picked up the beat their manager is drumming home -- "we want to win everything this season" -- which is where a second, extremely strange, anomaly emerges.
The European treble is a footballing marathon that requires you to win your domestic league, the premier domestic cup competition and become continental champions all in the same season. Only a magnificent seven clubs have achieved the ultimate honour. (In chronological order: Celtic in 1966-67, Ajax 1971-72, PSV 1987-88, Manchester United 1998-99, Barcelona 2008-09 and 2014-15, Inter Milan 2009-10 and Bayern Munich 2012-13 and 2019-20.)
Across their history, as arguably the No. 1 club in European football, how crazy is it that Madrid are not on that list and, in fact, have rarely threatened to be? Given that no club has won either LaLiga or the European Cup/Champions League more often than Madrid, you'd be right in thinking that it's often the Copa del Rey that ruins any chance they have of adding their name to the exclusive treble-winning top table.
A little glimpse at how frustrating this tournament can be for Los Blancos might, for example, come from 2008-09. Barcelona's treble campaign, their first season under Pep Guardiola and one that Xavi recently named his "favourite" ever in Blaugrana colours, could have been harpooned by Madrid if they hadn't drawn 6-6 across two games against Real Union and allowed the third division giant-killers to eliminate them with an 89th-minute away goal at the Bernabeu.
For the avoidance of doubt -- Madrid deployed one World Cup winner, Fabio Cannavaro, several World Cup finalists and a multitude of Champions League winners (Raul, Marcelo, Jerzy Dudek, Wesley Sneijder, Michel Salgado) and still conceded six goals to a third-division minnow. It's just an example, but a pungent one. All the more reason, it's arguable, to pay attention to the way Ancelotti and his Liga-leading squad took a solid blow to the chin from Alcoyano a few weeks ago and not only came back fighting, but administered the KO punches themselves.
Madrid's appetite for this grand old tournament, which often produces fights, sublime goals, drama, controversy and cup-final comebacks, has definitely returned, and "Hallelujah!" I say. Now, whether they'll be able to hold off Sevilla in the title race -- you'd say "probably," but the challengers have reinforced nicely in the January transfer market and have an armada of good footballers returning from injury or illness or the Africa Cup of Nations -- is one question. Another is whether Madrid's patent excellence in some parts of their squad is still sufficiently athletic and intense to cope with not only Paris Saint-Germain in the round of 16 of the Champions League, but (potentially) Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea or Bayern should they reach the quarterfinals.
Yet this is an era in which Madrid's ultra-ambitious president, Florentino Perez, is indisputably trying to sign-seal-and-deliver his stamp of all-time greatness at the club he's ruled over, with one short absence, for the last 22 years. He won't remove the name Santiago Bernabeu from the stadium where Madrid play and replace it with his own, but he is aiming at eclipsing -- rather than simply emulating -- his presidential forebear after whom the grand old arena is named.
Having presided over five Champions League successes (one short of what Bernabeu achieved while in charge), Perez has (ineptly) attempted to inaugurate a European Super League (to relegate the European Cup/Champions League concept, one that Bernabeu helped launch) and his stadium rebuild is an epic, exciting project. And one of the very few "grand" achievements left to Perez, one that Santiago Bernabeu's era never achieved, is Madrid winning a treble, or trebles.
You'd have to say that, given 65 years of being unable to achieve it, this season's Madrid squad, admirable though it is in some facets, doesn't look a convincing bet to change history. However, that 2008-09 Barcelona season -- and indeed the trebles achieved by PSV, Inter and United -- heavily emphasised that steely character, depth of squad, intense winning mentality and durability can sometimes be as important as possessing genius in the first XI or appearing to be, by far, the best team domestically and in Europe.
Once again, it was the Italian who took Madrid closest to a treble in modern memory. The Italian's first term in charge at the Bernabeu saw them win ultra-dramatic finals (Barcelona and Atletico) in the Copa and the Champions League, but pick up only five of the last 12 points in LaLiga so that Atleti could become champions in their last match of the season.
Seven points, dropped in draws at home to Valencia and away at Valladolid, and a defeat to Celta, cost Ancelotti, Perez and Madrid so, so much. And now, here they are.
The immediate issues include the fact that a couple of Madrid's players (Casemiro, Rodrygo and Vinicius) will arrive back from Brazil after being on international duty about 24 hours before the Cup tie in Bilbao, jet-lagged, but hopefully injury free. Ferland Mendy is likely to be out, injured. Karim Benzema, scorer of four of Madrid's five goals against Athletic this season, is a big doubt, and getting Fede Valverde back from duty with Uruguay looks against the odds.
Madrid have dealt with Athletic by beating them four out of five times since Marcelino took over Los Leones -- including three times by a single-goal margin. However, this is a test against a club that's been the losing Copa finalists five times in the past 13 editions and having knocked Los Blancos out of the Spanish Supercup last season and eliminated Barca from the Copa del Rey last month, they look like gnarly rivals.
The intense Basque-Madrileno rivalry is at stake, as is Madrid's self-confidence, with Sevilla breathing down their necks in LaLiga. Up for grabs, too, for Los Blancos, is the fact that with Atletico, Barcelona and Sevilla already out of the competition, this is shaping up as a "winnable" Copa del Rey. But make no mistake about it: also at stake is the prospect of Real Madrid erasing an unwanted and almost inexplicable stain on their brilliant record by finally winning the fabled treble.