It starts with Karim Benzema and Luka Modric, but it ends with Rodrygo and Eduardo Camavinga. And the ending can be just as important as how it begins.
Real Madrid’s feted veterans have played key roles in their conquest of La Liga and run to Saturday’s Champions League final, but their 'Baby Galacticos’ have also been decisive from the bench in the suffocating final minutes, when legs are tiring and it's hard to keep a cool head.
Against Manchester City and Chelsea in the semi-final and quarter-final second legs, respectively, the introductions of Rodrygo and Camavinga, in particular, were crucial in helping Madrid triumph in extra-time.
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And in the previous round against Paris Saint-Germain, Madrid were 2-0 down on aggregate until the same dynamic duo came on with 33 minutes left of the tie. One Benzema hat-trick later, and they won 3-2.
Los Blancos’ strong spine is known and admired, from Thibaut Courtois between the sticks, to experienced centre-back David Alaba, to the midfield trio which won three consecutive Champions Leagues between 2016-18, and spearhead Benzema, in the form of his life.
However, the supporting cast of young talent that Ancelotti has been able to rely upon, largely from the bench, has also been crucial in Madrid reaching the final.
Florentino Perez’s change in transfer strategy, dating back to 2015, deserves credit. Madrid have largely stopped trying to make huge signings for big transfer fees – even their failed pursuit of Kylian Mbappe was technically on a Bosman – and instead are investing in supremely talented young prospects who can explode at Santiago Bernabeu.
That is why they are financially healthy, compared to rivals Barcelona, who under Josep Maria Bartomeu’s presidency adopted an early-2000s Madrid, Galactico-targeting approach to the market. The world in reverse.
While Bartomeu burned hundreds of millions of euros on Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann, Madrid were more shrewd.
With the exceptions of Eden Hazard and Luka Jovic, they have not spent more than €50 million (£42m/$54m) on a single player since buying James Rodriguez in 2014.
Camavinga arrived from Rennes for €31m (£26m/$33m), Alaba on a free transfer, Rodrygo from Santos for €45m (£38m/$48m), Vinicius from Flamengo for the same amount, Courtois from Chelsea for €35m (£30m/$37.5m), and Toni Kroos for €25m (£21m/$27m). This summer, Antonio Rudiger will arrive for free from Chelsea.
Neymar is a figure who has played a big role both in Barcelona’s financial chaos and Madrid’s change in strategy. Having missed out on the Brazil star back in 2013, Perez signed both Vinicius and Rodrygo in a bid to find the next Neymar.
Meanwhile, Barcelona, drunk on the €222m (£189m/$238m) in cash PSG paid for Neymar, overspent that and then some trying to replace him.
The shift in Madrid’s approach has also ensured the transition period from their multi-Champions League winning side of the 2010s will be far less painless than Barcelona’s post-Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi malaise.
Despite the quality Modric is still showing at 36, and Benzema is at 34, change is inevitable. Madrid, though, have a stable of players who could potentially become greats themselves, with a little luck and more opportunity.
Some say Ancelotti has kept them on the leash too long this season, with the exception of Vinicius, but the coach would argue that it means they are fresher and more desperate to impress, becoming the catalyst for their devastating impact in big games against PSG, Chelsea, City, as well as in La Liga in the thrilling 3-2 comeback against Sevilla, which Rodrygo sparked as a substitute.
The one position in Real Madrid’s starting line up which doesn’t have a clear ‘owner’ is the right-wing spot in attack. Ancelotti has used Marco Asensio there, Ernesto Valverde there as a more defensive, hard-working option, and recently, Rodrygo has stepped into the limelight.
From the word go it was clear that the NXGN 2020 winner has ‘gol’ in his boots, bagging a perfect hat-trick against Galatasaray on only his second Champions League appearance, at 18 years and 301 days old.
He beat Wayne Rooney’s record famous treble against Fenerbahce by 39 days, and the only player younger than Rodrygo to achieve the feat was Real Madrid legend Raul, who did it at 18 years and 113 days old, against Ferencvaros.
Vinicius is the more explosive, thrilling player and has established himself as a key figure on the left flank, but Rodrygo’s natural nose for goal has made him an essential tool for Ancelotti to rely on when Madrid need to claw their way back into a game.
Against PSG, his dangerous ball for Vinicius was badly cleared by Marquinhos for Benzema to convert the game-winning goal, and he drew fouls in dangerous areas with his quick footwork.
Then, with Chelsea destroying Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, 3-0 up on the night and 4-3 up on aggregate, Modric sent an astonishingly good sliced, dipping cross to the back post, and Rodrygo maintained his composure to volley past Edouard Mendy. It forced extra time, and Benzema headed home the winner to fire Madrid into the semi-finals.
This time, the glory was Rodrygo’s. Madrid were on the ropes, entering the 90th minute and 5-3 down on aggregate. Then, the 21-year-old darted to the near post to finish Benzema’s cut-back and a little over a minute later, the Brazil international headed home Dani Carvajal’s cross to force the game into extra-time.
Madrid were ascendent, and when Rodrygo fired in a low cross for Benzema to run onto, the Frenchman was fouled by Ruben Dias. ‘King Karim’ converted the penalty, and Real Madrid were in the final.
“I can’t explain it,” said Rodrygo after the game. “God looked at me and told me, today is your day.”
Camavinga, meanwhile, has had an impact less easy to define by match-winning moments, but one which has been just as crucial in changing the game state to one which suits Madrid.
The France midfielder helps whip the game into an intense frenzy, appearing everywhere, all at once, helping create the conditions that suit Madrid’s ability to mount comebacks.
Sometimes it feels like Camavinga doesn’t have a set position at Madrid, in part because of the longevity of the current midfielders, none of whom he is a clean replacement for.
But it’s also because he’s so capable of both big attacking and defensive jobs, driving past players with the ball, showing exquisite passing range and getting stuck into tackles.
“The future is secure,” said Ancelotti, considering Camavinga and Valverde in the midfield, and Rodrygo and Vinicius in the attack.
With Uruguay international Valverde, 23, and Camavinga, 19, he has two-thirds of a potential Madrid midfield for the next decade. And after their impact this season, the future can’t come soon enough.
“I don’t like not playing, I want to play more, but it will come naturally,” Camavinga told Telefoot.
He has started just 13 games in La Liga this season, coming on in 13 more. Eight of his nine Champions League appearances have come as a substitute, and he is hungry for more opportunities.
Despite the Mbappe snub, Madrid have plenty to be excited about in the years going forward – and it’s already paying dividends now.
Liverpool will be dreading the sight of Rodrygo and Camavinga warming-up and waiting on the touchline in Paris, because as PSG, City and Chelsea can testify, it’s time to batten down the hatches – trouble is coming.