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From Koeman to King Karim: Why Real Madrid won La Liga so easily

17:18 BST 30/04/2022
Karim Benzema Real Madrid Espanyol La Liga 2021-22
Carlo Ancelotti's side clinched the capital club's 35th title with four games to spare thanks to a 4-0 win over Espanyol on Saturday afternoon

Whatever you chalk Real Madrid's European rollercoaster ride off to, be it luck, magic or a superior mindset, their La Liga campaign has been quite the contrast.

Carlo Ancelotti’s side have marched to a record 35th title convincingly, sealing it with a comfortable 4-0 win over Espanyol on Saturday, offering consistent and dependable performances with just a couple of hiccups along the way.

The last time a team won the league with four games to spare was Ernesto Valverde’s first year with Barcelona, the 2017-18 season when they beat second-place Atletico Madrid by 14 points.

This year, the season could finish with a bigger gap still.

When Madrid won the title in 2019-20, it was with just one match to spare, and at no point in the 21st century have they won the league this early. They have been top since week 13 and never looked like being deposed.

To Madrid’s great credit, they have been hugely effective at both ends of the pitch, where it counts, while Ancelotti has had no qualms in allowing breakthrough star Vinicius Junior to play on the counter as it suits him.

The squad has strength in depth and Madrid have improved as the season has gone on, while their rivals have withered, with the exception of Xavi Hernandez’s Barcelona.

The coach’s arrival came too late to give the Catalans a chance of competing for the title, despite Barca making the one serious blot on Madrid’s La Liga copybook, a painful 4-0 defeat at the Santiago Bernabeu in March.

With Ronald Koeman at the helm, Barcelona suffered for the first third of the season and it was only when president Joan Laporta finally axed the Dutchman did they start to improve.

By contrast, other teams which started strongly like Sevilla and Real Sociedad faded away badly in 2022, while across town Atletico Madrid have been embroiled in an identity crisis since winning the league last season. 

Villarreal have saved their best performances for the Champions League, first leg at Anfield notwithstanding, while Real Betis have had a fine campaign but are still 20 odd points off the pace.

However, just because Madrid’s potential rivals have not delivered, their persistence and quality must be acknowledged.

It would have been easy to look over their shoulders, smile and take their foot off the gas, but they came from two goals down to beat Sevilla 3-2 on April 17, proving their tenacity.

Before the Espanyol clash, they had won eight of the last nine league games, the one anomaly coming against Barcelona. The only other domestic defeat they have suffered in 2022 came against Getafe on January 2.

One of the obvious keys to their success has been the form of talismanic striker Karim Benzema.

The Ballon d’Or front-runner has hit Cristiano Ronaldo-esque numbers this season, with 42 goals in 42 games across all competitions.

Although his performances have been elite for years, Benzema is significantly more decisive now than he has ever been before.

Contributing to that shift has been the explosion of his strike partner Vinicius, who has found a calmness in front of goal and deep in opposition territory under Ancelotti that looked like it might never arrive.

Vinicus has already outscored his goal tallies from his previous three seasons (15) in this campaign and has formed a dynamic partnership with the French striker.

It was fitting that they combined again for Madrid's fourth and final goal against Espanyol.

At the other end of the pitch, Thibaut Courtois has enjoyed arguably the best season of his career, making several stunning saves to earn Madrid points.

Only Sevilla have let in fewer goals than Real Madrid this season and, in April, the Belgian made a string of stunning stops against Celta Vigo, which helped Madrid snatch a narrow victory and ensured they didn’t let the Barca thrashing knock them off the rails.

Another vital incorporation has been Austrian defender David Alaba, arriving from Bayern Munich on a free transfer and instantly filling Sergio Ramos’s role of defensive leader.

The centre-back has forged a strong partnership with Eder Militao, ensuring that Madrid’s defensive icon, and Raphael Varane, have not been missed – at either end.

Alaba netted the opener against Osasuna on April 20 and did the same against Barcelona at Camp Nou in Madrid’s 2-1 win last October.

Although midfielders Casemiro and Toni Kroos have not enjoyed their finest years, the evergreen Luka Modric, 36, has pulled the team through games with his experience and quality.

The Croatian has agreed on a new deal with Madrid to stay for at least one and, potentially, two more years, which should be announced soon.

Behind Modric, Madrid have midfield cover in Eduardo Camavinga and Fede Valverde, a duo which has become more important as the season has progressed, while Rodrygo and Marco Asensio have chipped in with goals in attack.

The likes of Gareth Bale, Eden Hazard, Marcelo and Isco, former superstars, have barely got a look in, with Nacho and Lucas Vazquez among those who have stepped up and performed when required.

These hard-working extra parts have helped Madrid become machine-like on their charge towards domestic glory, and now they can fully turn their attention to their altogether less predictable European advance.