10 March ~ When Real Madrid went to Hampden Park for the 2002 Champions League final they thought that winning the trophy was their destiny. The club was in its centenary year and Florentino Perez had assembled a team of Galácticos to win the competition that is so entwined with their history. With half-time approaching and the scores level Roberto Carlos floated a high cross to Zinedine Zidane on the edge of the penalty area. Turning on to his weaker left foot, Zidane volleyed the ball into the top corner of Bayer Leverkusen's goal.
The world's best player had scored one of the great goals of European football. And as their supposed fate would have it, Madrid clung on to win their ninth European Cup. With this year's final to be held at the Bernabeu, Florentino Perez has returned with a new team of Galácticos and Madrid are beginning to see La Decima as their destiny for 2010.
Having spent a quarter of a billion pounds in the summer, Real have every right to be confident of winning the competition. Perez has assembled a more balanced blend of stars than he managed in the 2000s. While Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka attracted the crowds for their unveiling, Alvaro Abeloa, Raúl Albiol and Xabi Alonso have steadied the side at the other end of the pitch.
Their dramatic last-gasp win over Sevilla on Saturday night took them top of La Liga on goal difference and continued their frightening run of home form. Real have not dropped a league point in their 13 games at the Bernabéu this season, scoring 44 goals in the process. Manolo Jiménez, the Sevilla coach, conceded after the match that his side had been beaten by "the best Madrid I've ever seen. They are electric."
Real have gelled better than anyone could have expected this season, and with the forthcoming clásico to be played at the Bernebeu, they have every chance of taking La Liga back from Barcelona. But their place in the Champions League final is far from secure. To even make the quarter-finals, they will have to beat Lyon at home tonight. Lyon dominated the first leg and should probably come to Spain with more than a 1-0 lead, not that you would know from the predictions Real players have offered before tonight's game. Cristiano Ronaldo is "convinced" Real will qualify. "At the Bernabéu, Madrid are the boss," said Ronaldo, who has clearly lost none of his swagger since leaving England. Sergio Ramos was even bolder: "We are going to win 3-0 and the fans are going to enjoy watching."
It is not in the club's nature to be humble, but predicting the score of European ties has not always worked in Real's favour. At the same stage of the competition last season, interim president Vicente Boluda declared that Real would trounce Liverpool 3-0 at home and win 2-1 at Anfield. "We're going to chorrear [dick on] Liverpool," said Boluda. In the end, Real lost the tie 5-0 on aggregate, and failed to make the quarter-finals for the fifth season in a row.
Before Real dream of a final at the Bernebéu in May, they should consider that back in 2002 they were not the only club who felt fated to win the Champions League that year. Sir Alex Ferguson, who grew up in Glasgow, thought a Champions League final at Hampden was his destiny. "It would be a great end to my career," said Ferguson, who had planned to retire at the end of the 2001-02 season. In the end United lost on away goals in the semi-finals and Ferguson stayed in his job. Real might think a home final is theirs for the taking, but they have to make it past Lyon first. With the away goals rule stacked against them, reaching the quarter-finals will not be a formality, not even for the Galácticos.