90min Editors Pick Their 2020 Ballon d’Or Rankings

Lewandowski was the heavy favourite for the Ballon d'Or.
Lewandowski was the heavy favourite for the Ballon d’Or. | TF-Images/Getty Images

France Football have announced that the Ballon d’Or will not be awarded this year, and we at 90min think that is a damn shame.

Obviously the pandemic’s disruption of the football calendar is a fairly fair reason as to why it’s not being handed out, but still, we feel sorry for big Robert Lewandowski. The guy who has scored (roughly) a trillion goals in 2020. He deserves a ball-shaped prize for that.

So, as some sort of consolation prize for Lewa, 90min‘s editorial team have decided to do our own 2020 Ballon d’Or rankings – and inevitably pick the Bayern Munich forward as the winner of our…Ballon papier-mâché award.

Robert LewandowskiRobert Lewandowski
Robert Lewandowski has been outstanding this year | Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

1. Robert Lewandowski

2. Thomas Muller

3. Karim Benzema

4. Kevin De Bruyne

5. Lionel Messi

A Bayern top two for me this year for a pretty simple reason: Bayern Munich are the best team in the world in 202,0 and Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller have been their best performers.

In 2020 alone, Lewandowski has scored (exactly) 21 goals and assisted a further four, while Muller has only gone and broken the Bundesliga record for most assists in a single season.

That’s pretty, pretty good.

Elsewhere in my top five we have Karim Benzema, who seemed hell-bent on breaking the internet with backheels in 2020, Kevin De Bruyne, who single-handedly made Man City relatively competent, and Lionel Messi who is, you know, Lionel Messi.

Josip IlicicJosip Ilicic
Josip Ilicic has been outstanding for Atalanta. | UEFA – Handout/Getty Images

1. Robert Lewandowski

2. Lionel Messi

3. Kevin De Bruyne

4. Karim Benzema

5. Josip Ilicic

It feels weird not to put Messi top in a season where’s he’s reached a new statistical madness (25 goals and 21 assists in the league!) but Robert Lewandowski has been…yeesh.

He scored more than 50 goals! He was better than a goal a game in every competition! He might very well add the Champions League to his 2020!

Yeah, Robert Lewandowski has been the best player in the world this year. KdB’s been excellent, Benzema’s finally been the man, and Ilicic…well, someone from Atalanta needed to get in and he’s the most fun.

Kevin De BruyneKevin De Bruyne
De Bruyne has been exceptional this season despite Man City’s woes | Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images

1. Robert Lewandowski

2. Sergio Ramos

3. Lionel Messi

4. Kevin De Bruyne

5. Virgil van Dijk

It’s got to be big Robert Lewandowski for top spot, right?

He was unmatched before and after lockdown, scoring more than a goal a game in the Bundesliga for an electric Bayern Munich side.

Sergio Ramos deserves enormous recognition for his role in Real Madrid’s La Liga title win, so while Lionel Messi was his usual brilliant self, his performances in a dodgy Barcelona team are only good enough for third place.

Kevin De Bruyne continues to improve with every passing season and his fourth spot is fully justified, and Liverpool need some representation after a brilliant Premier League campaign, so Virgil van Dijk makes up the top five.

BOSH!

Jordan HendersonJordan Henderson
Henderson captained Liverpool to their first league title in 30 years. | Pool/Getty Images

1. Robert Lewandowski

2. Sergio Ramos

3. Karim Benzema

4. Kevin De Bruyne

5. Jordan Henderson

When you score 51 goals in 43 games, you’ve basically completed football. The same can be said for those who have won eight Bundesliga titles – including six in a row – and five kicker Torjägerkanone (that’s Golden Boot awards win for me and you). Only one man has done that and that’s my mate Robert Lewandowski. What a guy.

Sergio Ramos has scored more La Liga goals in a single season (11) than he’s ever done before in his career, helping Real Madrid claim a 34th league title. He also has a wonderful beard, is rocking glowing 12-pack abs and continues to be a genius sh*thouse. Need I say more?

Few players who have played alongside Cristiano Ronaldo have got the credit they deserve. One of those who’s been sawn off is Gareth Bale, and another is Karim Benzema – who for the best part of decade has been bloody brilliant for Real Madrid. All it needed for the Frenchman to take centre stage was Zinedine Zidane at the helm and CR7 to do one for him to become the third best player in the world.

Manchester City haven’t been as great as they normally are, but that sentence doesn’t apply to a magnificent ginger haired Belgian known as Kevin De Bruyne. Yep, KDB has actually improved this season – which you’d have thought is borderline impossible given his immense technical ability.

And rounding off my top five is a certain Liverpool captain.

Just incase you’ve been living under a rock, Liverpool have won a first top-flight title in 30 years and first ever Premier League crown. It’s not been all about Mo Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino this year, and nor has it been all about Virgil van Dijk. Instead, it’s been all about the consistent displays of captain fantastic Jordan Henderson. And boy, has he been fantastic.

Lionel MessiLionel Messi
Messi’s worst season in a decade and he was still better than pretty much everyone else | Alex Caparros/Getty Images

1. Robert Lewandowski

2. Lionel Messi

3. Kevin De Bruyne

4. Karim Benzema

5. Casemiro

As much as I’d like to choose someone else for variety, Lewandowski is the obvious choice whichever way you swing it. Meanwhile, Messi’s ‘bad’ year has still yielded 15 goals and 14 assists, in a proper shambles of a team too.

Because it’s hard to isolate just one Liverpool player – and most did their best work pre-lockdown anyway – De Bruyne is probably the Premier League’s leading candidate so far.

Benzema has obviously been superb for Real Madrid, but often overlooked is the role of Casemiro, who (forget Ramos) is this team’s key cog.

Using the following scoring system:

1st = 5 points.

2nd = 4 points.

3rd = 3 points.

2nd = 2 points.

5th = 1 point.

Here they, are the definitive, the correct, the undisputed 2019 Ballon d’Or rankings, as voted for by the 90min editorial team:

1. Robert Lewandowski (25 pts)

2. Karim Benzema (13 pts)

3. Kevin De Bruyne (12 pts)

4. Lionel Messi (12 pts)

5. Sergio Ramos (8 pts)

Let’

Sergio Ramos Wants Hefty New Contract at Real Madrid Amid China Links

Sergio Ramos
Sergio Ramos captained Real Madrid to a 34th La Liga title last season | Soccrates Images/Getty Images

Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos has demanded a contract extension with a hefty pay rise at the club, pleas which Los Blancos are currently unwilling to meet.

The stalwart centre-half scored 11 times as he led Real to their 34th La Liga title, wrapped up with a 2-1 victory over Villarreal on the penultimate matchday of the season, and has continued to impress at the heart of an imperious defence alongside Raphael Varane.

Sergio Ramos, Antonio Gomez-ReinoSergio Ramos, Antonio Gomez-Reino
Ramos has now won 15 major honours with Los Blancos | Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

However, the club are in a tricky spot regarding the 34-year-old’s future, and Spanish news outlet SPORT understand Ramos is asking for a significant pay rise in what could be his last professional contract, with his current deal expiring in 2021.

Ramos currently earns a healthy €12.5m salary following his most recent contract extension in 2015 – with the Spaniard using interest from Manchester United as leverage to garner a more lucrative deal.

However, the Real skipper is keen on a financial improvement on his current deal, despite his age, and is believed to be demanding a salary in the region of €17m.

It’s a demand which the club are currently unwilling to match amid the financial strains brought about by COVID-19. It’s understood that significantly boosting Ramos’ deal at the club isn’t even being considered and instead, Real were looking to reduce their captain’s salary to €10m.

So, with both parties currently way apart in their valuations regarding a new deal, it doesn’t seem out of the picture for Ramos to walk away from the Bernabeu when his contract expires in 2021.

Sergio RamosSergio Ramos
The Spaniard could walk away from the Bernabeu following the expiration of his contract in 2021, with plenty of CSL clubs interested | Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Madrid-based outlet Central Defense understand teams in the Chinese Super League are willing to offer Ramos an enormous contract if he was to join on a free transfer, with salaries around the €22m mark being discussed.

A number of clubs in the pacific are desperate to add such an icon to their ranks and his potential salary would make him the second-highest paid Spanish footballer in the world after Andres Iniesta, who currently earns €25m-a-year at Vissel Kobe in Japan.

Let’

Lazar Samardžić: Things to Know About the Germany Youth International

Lazar Samardzic
Lazar Samardzic is wanted by most of Europe’s elite | Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

For some fans, there’s nothing more exciting than seeing your club snap up one of Europe’s hottest prospects, and it looks like one group of supporters could soon be celebrating the acquisition of 18-year-old Lazar Samardžić from Hertha Berlin.

Bild recently revealed that Chelsea are among a host of sides pursuing the attacking midfielder, but they are by no means alone. Everyone who is anyone has expressed an interest in Samardžić, who bagged 14 goals and nine assists from midfield at youth level before being handed his senior debut towards the end of the season.

It’s a story worth keeping an eye on down the line, so it’s time to get clued up about Samardžić.

The German football dictionary includes the word ‘Käfigkicker’, which translates as a ‘cage footballer’. Basically, it’s the word used to describe the kind of player who is all about quick footwork and the use of silky skills to beat defenders which you’d usually see in local cages around the world.

Samardžić fits into that category perfectly. He’s all about weaving his way past defenders and has even been known to sit a goalkeeper or two down in his time.

It makes for exciting viewing every time, and that’s what fans are so excited about him.

Nike love trying to tie the world’s best players down to exclusive contracts, and they are even prepared to throw big money at young players who they are confident will become superstars. That’s what they did with Samardžić.

Still just 18 years old, the teenager is seen as one of German football’s brightest stars, and Nike did not need to see much to convince themselves that he was worth signing up.

Austria v Germany: Group D - 2019 UEFA Under17 European ChampionshipAustria v Germany: Group D - 2019 UEFA Under17 European Championship
Samardzic is eligible to play for Serbia and Germany | Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Serbia hesitated to commit to Samardžić at youth level, and that gave Germany the advantage they needed to convince the youngster to commit to them internationally.

First brought in to the Under-16 setup, Samardžić has risen through the ranks and he has captained the Under-19 side, with Germany keen to show their faith in the midfielder.

The Serbian FA have long been in talks with Samardžić’s father to try and lure him back, but it looks to be too little, too late.

Most 18-year-old attacking midfielders tend to be lacking something on the physicality front, and Samardžić is no exception to that.

He’s fairly tall for his position (although not compared to the likes of Kai Havertz and Julian Brandt), but his skinny frame and slow sprint speed can work against him at times.

It’s why Samardžić’s puts so much focus on footwork. If he can’t out-muscle a defender, he’s going to out-skill one.

Hertha have never been scared of showing Samardžić some tough love when he needs it. In June’s 4-1 loss to Frankfurt, he was subbed on to the pitch and removed just 21 minutes later.

Granted, a red card forced his team to change shape, but Samardžić’s inability to help his side defend was quickly identified as a major burden by manager Bruno Labbadia.

“We know his strengths. They are certainly more offensive than defensive,” Labbadia said (via Berliner Kurier). “To be honest, we thought about taking him off the field at half time. It was an important test for him. You also have to do things on the defensive end. He still has to do it better. ”

In German youth football, the Fritz Walter Medal is the equivalent of the Ballon d’Or. A gold, a silver and a bronze medal are given out to players in Under-19, Under-17 and female academy football.

Samardžić managed to win himself a bronze medal at Under-17 level in 2019, with judges clearly believing he will become a star of the future somewhere down the line.

Those who vote definitely know what they are talking about, as the list of former winners includes Havertz, Joshua Kimmich, Timo Werner, Toni Kroos and Manuel Neuer.

Paolo MaldiniPaolo Maldini
Paolo Maldini met with Samardzic | Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

The idea of a player being wanted by ‘every European giant’ is usually a mass exaggeration, but for Samardžić, it’s exactly right.

A quick Google search of his name will produce links to Manchester City, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Chelsea (among others), but it was AC Milan who really started the party.

Paolo Maldini met with Samardžić before the coronavirus outbreak paralysed football to try and get a deal over the line, but the delay has allowed the rest of the big boys to join in.

Austria v Germany: Group D - 2019 UEFA Under17 European ChampionshipAustria v Germany: Group D - 2019 UEFA Under17 European Championship
Samardzic is not scared of Panenkas | Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Samardžić is somewhat of a set-piece specialist. He’s known for his composure from free kicks and penalties, and he loves stealing the show from 12 yards out.

It’s not rare to see Samardžić pull out a Panenka penalty, and he’s so deceptive with his eyes that goalkeepers fall for it time and time again.

Hertha’s status as one of Germany’s top academies earned them an invitation to the Premier League Under-15 International Tournament in 2016.

Samardžić’s side were well and truly thumped by Arsenal, but that lit a fire under the German and he ended up tearing Blackburn and Sunderland’s youngsters apart.

It was his first chance to impress on a global stage, and Samardžić did not disappoint.

For more from ​Tom Gott, follow him on ​Twitter!

Let’

Gareth Bale’s Agent Rules Out Leaving Real Madrid This Summer – Even on Loan

Gareth Bale
Gareth Bale will stay at Real Madrid, according to his agent | Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Real Madrid forward Gareth Bale is expected to stay at the Bernabeu this summer, despite struggling to even get on the pitch in recent weeks, with his agent Jonathan Barnett declaring that a loan is off the table and that few clubs in the world could actually afford the Welshman.

Bale only featured in two of Real’s final 14 La Liga games of the season en-route to the title. He was an unused substitute on 10 occasions and wasn’t even included in the matchday squad for the final game of the campaign against Leganes.

Gareth BaleGareth Bale
Bale has mostly been on the bench for Real since March | Soccrates Images/Getty Images

The 31-year-old has been criticised for a perceived lack of interest since the season restarted, having been spotted joking around while on the bench more than once. His relationship with Real fans and the Spanish media appeared to reach new lows when he posed with a banner while on international duty in November that read, ‘Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order.’

Yet despite it seeming as though his time with Real has run its course, Barnett is adamant that Bale will not be leaving Los Blancos, with whom he has won four Champions League titles.

“Gareth is fine. He has two years left on his contract,” the agent told BBC Sport. “He likes living in Madrid and he is going nowhere. He is still as good as anyone else in the team. It’s up to Zinedine Zidane.”

Gareth Bale, Zinedine ZidaneGareth Bale, Zinedine Zidane
Bale isn’t in favour with Real coach Zinedine Zidane | Soccrates Images/Getty Images

Bale is among a number of high profile players across Europe whose wages and costs are pricing them out of a move. Alexis Sanchez, Philippe Coutinho and Real teammate James Rodriguez are similarly too expensive for their respective clubs to move on.

“Of course there’s been interest but there’s hardly a club in the world which can afford him. It’s a great loss that he’s not in the Real Madrid team at the moment but he will not leave,” Barnett commented on Bale’s potential availability.

A loan move has also been ruled out. James spent two years on loan at Bayern Munich, while Coutinho joined the German club on a temporary deal last summer – neither became permanent. Sanchez is still in need of a permanent home after spending this season at Inter, while a loan may also be the immediate future of Coutinho, who is unwanted by Barcelona.

UEFA Champions League"Real Madrid v Manchester City FC"UEFA Champions League"Real Madrid v Manchester City FC"
Bale’s enormous wages don’t leave him many options | ANP Sport/Getty Images

Barnett has said that such a move won’t even be entertained, stating in no uncertain terms: “Gareth is one of the best players in the world. The best players in the world do not go out on loan.”

It is not the first time that Barnett has publicly commented that Bale is likely to stay at Real, telling BBC Radio 4 just last month: “He is quite happy at Madrid and has a very nice lifestyle. I don’t see why he doesn’t see his career out at Madrid.”

For more from Jamie Spencer, follow him on Twitter and Facebook!

Let’

Ballon d’Or 2020 Cancelled Due to ‘Lack of Fair Conditions’

Lionel Messi
The 2020 Ballon d’Or ceremony has been cancelled | Kristy Sparow/Getty Images

France Football have announced that there will be no Ballon d’Or award ceremony in 2020, owing to the exceptional circumstances and ‘lack of sufficient fair conditions.’

The award ceremony had been due to take place as normal in December, where the best players in the men’s and women’s game over the previous 12 months would be presented with the prestigious Ballon d’Or and Ballon d’Or Féminin awards.

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It has been far from a normal year for football, however, with the COVID-19 pandemic pausing all sport between March and June. The European Championships, which take place every four years and normally have a significant bearing on the award, were put back to 2021 as a result.

France Football have released a statement explaining that these exceptional conditions meant there were a ‘lack of sufficient fair conditions’ to hold an awards’ ceremony in 2020, and as such, for the first time in the 64 year history of the Ballon d’Or, it has been called off.

In addition to Ballon d’Or and Ballon d’Or feminine, the Kopa and Yachine Trophies – awarded in 2019 to Kylian Mbappé and Alisson Becker as the best young player and best goalkeeper respectively – have also been put on ice.

Lionel Messi and Megan Rapinoe will hold the showpiece awards until December 2021.

Let’

Sergio Ramos Scores Again as Leganes Relegated Despite 2-2 Draw With Real Madrid

Sergio Ramos
Ramos netted the opening goal for Real | Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Real Madrid rounded out their title-winning season with a labouring 2-2 draw with Leganes, inflicting a heartbreaking relegation on their city rivals in the process.

You could deduce from their early performance that Real have spent a good portion of the last week celebrating their 34th title, but it didn’t take them too long to shake off the Sunday evening lurgy and get the after-party started.

Not ten minutes were on the clock when Sergio Ramos continued his astonishing goalscoring campaign, as he rose highest to head in an Isco free-kick for his 11th La Liga strike.

Leganes were fighting for their lives, however, and after gathering their composure, they took the game to the champions. Before the break, we were treated to a superb strike from Bryan Gil, low, left-footed, and completely out of Thibaut Courtois’ reach from the tightest of angles.

The hosts needed a win to stand any chance of survival, but there was only so much they could do against Zinedine Zidane’s powerhouse, and were dealt a killer blow shortly after the half-time break. Isco had picked an opportune time to return to his best form, and picked out Marco Asensio, who slotted past Ivan Cuellar to put survival – seemingly – out of Leganes’ reach.

But then came another twist. After three substitutions took Real out of their rhythm, with Zidane looking to get half an hour of football out of fringe players Brahim Diaz and Luka Jovic, Roger Assalé found an equalising goal from close range. Jonathan Silva’s cross earned him his second assist of the night – he hadn’t registered any this term in the 37 games prior.

The drama wasn’t quite done there; Unai Bustinza and Javier Aviles both spurned chances to claim a historic win for the home side, before Real got the benefit of a VAR call after Jovic had appeared to handle the ball in the area. Madrid loanee Oscar skied a great late opportunity, but the ball stayed out of the net.

Real finish the season on 87 points, and Leganes drop into La Liga 2.

Let’

How Zinedine Zidane’s Title-Winning Side Compare to Vintage Real Madrid Teams

FBL-ESP-LIGA-REAL MADRID-VILLARREAL
GABRIEL BOUYS/Getty Images

Sealing the title at your near-empty home stadium which isn’t really your home stadium.

With only a bunch of photographers and substitutes there to see it.

Your joint-most expensive signing ever mills around awkwardly like he’s waiting to be introduced at a party.

The story Real Madrid’s 34th La Liga crown has been anything but ordinary.

Other than some of the more notably unique aspects of Real Madrid’s first title victory in three years, however, there was a distinctly new feel to Zinedine Zidane’s side, and a number of important aspects separate it and link it with some of the great Los Blancos sides of years gone by.

What exactly is new about this Real Madrid side, then, and what is there about them that can be traced from their legendary forefathers? Let’s take a journey backwards through the ages to work it out…

FBL-EUR-C1-SCHALKE-REAL MADRIDFBL-EUR-C1-SCHALKE-REAL MADRID
Gone are the days of the ‘BBC’ | PATRIK STOLLARZ/Getty Images

Zidane has often been regarded as one of the more tactically flexible coaches in Europe, with his Real Madrid sides having had no recognisable style of play over the years, adapting themselves instead to the glittering players that Zidane finds at his disposal.

What is especially notable when Zidane’s current triumph is compared to his last league victory in the 2016/17 season is the distribution of the goalscorers – three years ago was the era of the ‘BBC’, with Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo combining for 41 goals in total, with Benzema often a distinctly third fiddle as the wingers flew through the gears.

This season, however, you’d struggle to find anyone near Benzema on the scoring charts for Real Madrid in the league, with centre back Sergio Ramos on ten league goals coming closest to matching the Frenchman’s 21 strikes.

By comparison, the wide men in Vinicius Júnior, Eden Hazard, Rodrygo, Marco Asensio, Lucas Vázquez and Bale can only boast of a combined 12 league goals between them. Clearly, Zidane has managed to find areas of efficiency elsewhere, which brings us on to our next comparison…

Jose Mourinho, Mesut OzilJose Mourinho, Mesut Ozil
Mourinho presided over some stellar attacking football during his time at Real Madrid | Denis Doyle/Getty Images

It’s hard to believe sometimes when you’re watching Tottenham struggle to muster a single shot on target away at Bournemouth, but José Mourinho at his best was once in fact extremely good at coaching elite attackers, and no more so than in his 2011/12 ‘Centurion’ season at Real Madrid.

During ‘La Liga de los Récords’, Los Blancos amassed 100 points under the Special One, as well as scoring a record 121 goals during the season, with Cristiano Ronaldo amassing an obscene 60 goals in all competitions.

Zidane’s side are setting their own decidedly different records, and in doing so show us how the Frenchman has atoned for the lack of firepower up top. They are well on course to break the club record for fewest goals conceded in a 38-game La Liga system, with their 23 goals allowed three less than the 26 of the 1987/88 season.

Though Ramos certainly has a mistake in him these days, the experience of Dani Carvajal, the goalkeeping might of Thibaut Courtois, the midfield steel of Fede Valverde and Casemiro, and the relatively quick adaptation period of the brilliant Ferland Mendy has made the Real Madrid goal a true fortress.

Barcelona have looked thoroughly disorganised this seasonBarcelona have looked thoroughly disorganised this season
Barcelona have looked thoroughly disorganised this season | Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Any title win is often defined by how hard you were chased by your main rivals, and a cynic might say that up against a dishevelled Barcelona side failing to respond to Quique Setien and an Atletico Madrid side who at one point didn’t even look set for a Champions League spot, Real Madrid were left with very little excuse not to win the league.

On the other hand, for a relatively young and transitional Real Madrid side to upset the applecart in the age of Barça and Lionel Messi’s dominance is worthy of much credit, and with Real clinching the title with a game to spare, it’s important to be reminded that it wasn’t always so easy…

In the 2006/07 season, up until the 80th minute of the final game of the season, Madrid looked like they’d let the title slip away from them and into the hands of a Barcelona side who they’d been chasing all season, with Los Blancos having lost just one of their final 16 games to get to that point.

By the 81st minute, Madrid had the title, with Mahamadou Diarra’s deflected header giving them a priceless late victory. With Barcelona having dropped points in four out of a possible ten matches since the restart, Madrid’s task was much easier this time round.

The ever-reliable Benzema and RamosThe ever-reliable Benzema and Ramos
The ever-reliable Benzema and Ramos | Denis Doyle/Getty Images

2002/03 saw one of the most lavishly-assembled title winners of the La Liga era, with ‘El Fenomeno’ Ronaldo’s 23 league goals firing Vicente del Bosque’s side, which featured his fellow Galacticos Luis Figo and Zidane himself, to the title.

Florentino Pérez has remained Florentino Pérez across the 17 years which separate then from now, and last summer in true fashion the GDP of a moderately-sized country was spent on bringing in Eden Hazard and Luka Jovic to bolster the attack with some of Europe’s brightest stars.

The only issue is that this time, the attackers have been more Luis Garcia than Luis Figo, and Hazard’s fluctuating weight and injury status, alongside Jovic’s failure to catch Zidane’s eye, have seen Madrid’s manager increasingly rely on the ‘old guard’ of Ramos and Benzema to lead Madrid through crunch time.

Since the restart, Zidane’s faith has been rewarded, with Ramos rather symmetrically scoring five goals and keeping five clean sheets, while Benzema has been talismanic in adding seven goals and two assists to Madrid’s efforts in the run-in.

Without insinuating too much, it might even be said that the experience of both men when it comes to occasionally practicing football’s dark arts may well have helped Madrid accrue an extraordinary quantity of penalties on the way to their league victory. Three cheers for Real Madrid’s slightly less expensive footballers!

Emilio ButraguenoEmilio Butragueno
Madrid gave youth a chance, and ended up with Butragueno! | Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

At the beating heart of the dominant Real Madrid team which won five league titles in a row in the 1980s was the extremely coolly-named ‘Quinta del Buitro’, or ‘Vulture’s Cohort’, so named for the young core of players of which Emilio Butragueño was the (baby) face.

By the time of their fifth straight win of 1990 under John Toshack, four of the five in the ‘cohort’ were now established players in Butragueno, Manolo Sanchís, Rafael Martín Vázquez and Míchel, with a young Butragueno having famously made his mark on debut in 1984 by scoring twice in a 3-2 comeback win.

What’s exciting from a Madrid perspective is that another such cohort is coming through now, and the Butragueno figure leading it all could well be the electrifying Vinicius, with his colleagues in Brahim Diaz, Rodrygo, Valverde and Eder Militao all promising to usher in a new, dominant and sustainable era at Real.

FBL-SPAIN-FRIENDLY-REAL MADRID-STADE REIMSFBL-SPAIN-FRIENDLY-REAL MADRID-STADE REIMS
Madrid’s European pedigree stretches back to the days of Alfredo Di Stefano | JAVIER SORIANO/Getty Images

Zidane’s current Real Madrid side are good, but the mark of a truly great one is connected to your ability to combine domestic success with glory in Europe’s main continental competition, one that has always been kind to Los Blancos.

By the time of their fifth consecutive European Cup triumph, Real Madrid had on two of these occasions won the competition alongside the league in the same season, but since then it has ‘only’ been done once more – spookily enough, the last time Zidane won the league.

With Real Madrid needing something pretty special to overturn a 2-1 deficit against Manchester City in their Champions League round of 16 second leg tie on 7 August, the gloss which their season needs to become truly memorable seems a long way off.

But should they succeed against their old foe Guardiola, the Lisbon mini-tournament, where the games will be total one-offs and the likes of Bayern Munich and PSG are likely to be lacking in match sharpness, could be an invaluable chance to put the cherry on the icing on the La Liga cake.

Let’

Eden Hazard Confesses to Having ‘Worst Season of Career’ Despite La Liga Triumph

Eden Hazard
Injury and fitness has resulted in a stop-start debut season for Eden Hazard | Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Being in with a shot of the Spanish title was expected of Real Madrid after they secured the club-record signing of Eden Hazard last summer, but while they’ve achieved their goals, the Belgian’s impact was bit-part at best.

Openly admitting to being overweight for the start of the season and suffering a string of niggling injuries has resulted in the forward making just 21 appearances in all competitions and a single goal.

In an interview with Franceinfo, Hazard made no bones about the disappointment of his own season, irrespective of Madrid pipping Barça to a 34th La Liga title.

“Certainly there have been injuries, but I hope next year will be better. Although this year has not been a great year for me, to come here and win the championship in the first year, I couldn’t have wished for more,” he said.

“This year, we won this title as a team, because me, at an individual level, have surely had the worst season of my career.”

With La Liga wrapped up with one game to spare, attentions in the capital will turn towards their Champions League round of 16 semi-final second leg with Manchester City. Madrid have it all to do in the return leg after succumbing to a 2-1 home defeat, with Hazard claiming a ‘weird’ season could get even better.

Eden HazardEden Hazard
Eden Hazard has scored just once in his 21 outings for Real this season | Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

He added: “It has been a bit of a weird season, with everything that has happened. The season is already very good, but I think it can be even better if we qualify from our second leg in the Champions League.

“The next title has to be the Champions League, even if it’s going to be difficult, because we have to play at Manchester City and they have a very good team.”

For more from Ross Kennerley, follow him on Twitter!

Let’

The Real Madrid Lineup That Should Start Against Leganes

Zinedine Zidane
Real Madrid won the league after beating Villarreal | Denis Doyle/Getty Images

After clinching the title in midweek, Real Madrid are set to face off against Leganes on Sunday night in their final game of a successful league season.

Los Merengues will be treated to a guard of honour when they walk out at the Estadio Municipal Butarque on Sunday evening, after winning the league on Thursday against Villarreal.

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The title was confirmed on Thursday against Villarreal | Denis Doyle/Getty Images

As you can probably guess, there is not much else for Real Madrid to play for, but the same cannot be said for Leganes who are fighting for survival at the foot of the table.

Here is the team that Zidane should put out on Sunday.

Sergio RamosSergio Ramos
Sergio Ramos has been on fire | Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

Thibaut Courtois (GK) – The Belgian has had a fine season at Real. He has kept the most clean sheets in Europe’s top five leagues and will be expected to keep that record going against Leganes.

Dani Carvajal (RB) – A solid option at right back, Carvajal will likely start this weekend after a very impressive season.

Raphael Varane (CB) – One of the most talented defenders in the world, Varane will look to cap off a fine season with a clean sheet on Sunday.

Sergio Ramos (CB) – The star of Real Madrid’s season, Ramos has scored some vital goals to push them towards the title – 10 in the league alone.

Ferland Mendy (LB) – Now the number one left back at the club, Mendy has gone from strength to strength this season under Zidane’s guidance.

Federico ValverdeFederico Valverde
Valverde looks set to start | Soccrates Images/Getty Images

Casemiro (CDM) – Casemiro is vital to Zidane’s system, and one of the very best defensive midfielders of his generation.

Luka Modric (CM) – Despite being one of the elder statesmen at the club, Modric has continued to perform at the highest level this season.

Federico Valverde (CM) – The Uruguayan has found himself in the starting XI more often than he might have expected recently, but he hasn’t disappointed and will be looking to show he is ready to started regularly for Los Blancos next season.

Benzema has been immense this seasonBenzema has been immense this season
Benzema has been immense this season | Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Marco Asensio (RW) – The Spaniard scored the game-sealing goal against Villarreal.

Vinicius Junior (LW) – Vinicius provided a delightful assist for Asensio’s goal on Thursday and despite an injury hit season, he will have shown enough to make Eden Hazard worry about his starting role next year.

Karim Benzema (ST) – Benzema has shown that he can be the star man for Real Madrid this season, and his form since the restart has contributed hugely to Los Blancos clinching the title.

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Thibaut Courtois: The Unsung Hero Behind Real Madrid’s La Liga Title

Thibaut Courtois
Courtois has been key to Real Madrid’s title win | Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

When Thibaut Courtois swapped Chelsea for Real Madrid, it was a decision that was met by Blues fans with anger and criticism.

Perhaps the Belgium international was a bit of a ‘snake’ in the way he went about securing his move to Madrid, but a large part of fans’ anger didn’t stem from his actions to complete the move – but rather the fact that they were fully aware that they were losing a world class goalkeeper and one of the best in the business.

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Thibaut Courtois left Chelsea fans frustrated by his exit | JAVIER SORIANO/Getty Images

For around £35m as well, it appeared as though Real Madrid had made an excellent signing. But as it turned out, Courtois made a very slow start to life at his new home, struggling to make the comfortable saves any goalkeeper of his calibre would have been expected to make.

Indeed, it was tough for him as Keylor Navas was a fan favourite at Los Blancos, and equally, a key member of the Real squad. The players trusted him, supported him and backed him – which, of course, only made things more challenging for new arrival Courtois.

As first impressions go, Courtois’ didn’t make a great one, so much so that talk even began to grow that Los Blancos were considering the possibility of selling him after just one season. The same problems persisted early in the 2019/20 campaign, as well.

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Courtois had a difficult start at Real Madrid | Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

But fast forward one year and Courtois is now once again regarded as one of the world’s very best. And while Karim Benzema and Sergio Ramos as well as boss Zinedine Zidane will receive the main plaudits for recently securing their 34th La Liga title, Courtois has been equally vital to this Real side.

He’s looked unbeatable at times, producing world class saves while also getting his side playing on the front foot with his range of passing. The 28-year-old’s importance to his side’s title triumph cannot be understated.

Take his performance in the most recent Clasico, when Los Blancos won 2-0. The former Chelsea man produced three stunning saves to deny Arthur Melo, Lionel Messi and Martin Braithwaite in one-on-one situations, before the hosts opened the scoring through Vinicius Junior after 70 minutes.

In doing so, Courtois became the first Real goalkeeper to keep clean sheets in both Clasico league fixtures since the 1974/75 campaign.

In total this season, Courtois has managed 18 clean sheets in the league, while Real have conceded just 23 goals so far. Furthermore, the Belgian has managed a save percentage of 52.9%, while Jan Oblak and Marc-Andre ter Stegen – both of whom are regarded as two of the world’s finest shot-stoppers – have managed 45.9% and 38.9% respectively.

Kepa, the man tasked with replacing Courtois at Chelsea, has a save percentage of just 25% in the Premier League in 2019/20.

Despite his tough start, Real’s number one has remained focused and has worked tirelessly to ensure he would succeed at the Bernabeu. And this is exactly what he has done.

But more broadly, his success at Real shouldn’t come as a surprise because the club’s recent title win means Courtois has now won the league at every club he has played for. This isn’t coincidental, nor is it fortunate for him – rather it is because of his skills and ability to constantly learn and want to improve.

During his early days at Genk, a club he joined aged seven, he made his debut aged just 16. And in the 2010/11 season, he went on to pick up the Goalkeeper of the Year award as well as Genk’s Player of the Year as he helped guide them to league glory.

A move to Chelsea soon followed for the young talent, but he was quickly sent on loan to Atletico Madrid – where he would shine. Indeed, he was named Man of the Match as he put in a simply outrageous display to help his loan club overcome rivals Real 2-1 for the first time in 14 years in 2013. Oh, and it was in the Copa del Rey final as well.

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Courtois was sensational in the Copa del Rey final | Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

He went on to play a key role in Atletico’s 2013/14 La Liga success, with his performances helping Atletico win the league as well as reach the Champions League final.

This was a goalkeeper going from strength to strength, and Chelsea simply couldn’t ignore him any longer. Indeed, he was brought back to Stamford Bridge for the 2014/15 season, and success continued to follow Courtois as he helped the west Londoners win the League Cup and the Premier League in his first season back.

The 2015/16 campaign was tough for the player as he struggled with injuries, while he also saw red twice that season. But as has been made evident throughout his career to date, Courtois is a player that is always looking to learn and improve, which is exactly what he did – conceding just 28 league goals the following season to help the Blues become Premier League champions again.

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Courtois has emerged as a real leader at Real Madrid | Soccrates Images/Getty Images

Courtois has been criticised by many, but his record speaks for itself. His performances this season for Real Madrid have gone somewhat unnoticed, but Zidane will be fully aware of the key contributions he has continued to make and just how vital he has been to their title win.

Their league triumph was built on defensive solidity, and Courtois’ leadership, shot-stopping and distribution has been key to this. Make no mistake about it, the goalkeeper is one of the very best in the business.

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