There is a lot about Real Madrid’s ability to make a deep run in the Champions League season after season that defies logic. Carlo Ancelotti’s team, for instance, are trailing well behind Barcelona in La Liga, but have still managed to reach the final four of European club soccer’s premier competition.
Real Madrid do little to control matches, yet are still able to hold their own against the Champions League elite. Last season, they saw off Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool on their way to winning their 14th European Cup as a club. This season, they have repeated the trick against Liverpool and Chelsea.
Most baffling of all to anyone who has watched Real Madrid in the Champions League this season is how they continue to get so much from Toni Kroos and Luka Modric. The pair are well into the twilight of their careers – Kroos is 33 and Modric is 37 – but remain among the best at what they do.
Kroos and Modric have formed the basis of Real Madrid’s midfield for the last decade. The success enjoyed by Los Blancos in that time has been built on their mutual understanding in the centre of the pitch. They are just as important to the team as ever before. Chelsea and Liverpool both found that out to their cost.
However, Real Madrid are facing a crossroads with regards to the future of Kroos and Modric. While they continue to operate at the highest level, the Santiago Bernabeu club needs a succession plan to ensure they don’t suffer a dramatic drop-off whenever the pair finally start to fade. Modric in particular can’t go on forever, even if it has appeared that way year after year.
Talks with Kroos and Modric continue over a one-year extension which would see the pair stay in the Spanish capital until the summer of 2024. It could be argued, though, that Real Madrid should move one midfielder on to ward against losing both at once when the time comes to replace them in the first team.
Ancelotti has been careful not to over-work Kroos and Modric this season. Indeed, they have been rotated in and out of the team at times, but the Real Madrid manager has kept them fresh for the Champions League where they have performed at their peak. The process of replacing them might have already started.
Dani Ceballos has enjoyed a career renaissance this season with the Spanish international likely to sign a new contract to stay at Real Madrid this summer. Aurelien Tchouameni has required some time acclimatise to his new surroundings following a transfer from Monaco last summer, but the 23-year-old’s potential is clear. Then there’s Eduardo Camavinga and Fede Valverde too, who continue to display quality that could make them indispensable first-team players for years to come.
Jude Bellingham will likely also be a target for Real Madrid, with the Borussia Dortmund midfielder attracting attention from essentially every major club. Bellingham could be promised a place in Real Madrid’s midfield as part of a long-term rebuild. But that rebuild will require Kroos and Modric to be pushed out.
“We’re a modern team,” explained Ancelotti in a recent interview, assessing his Real Madrid side and the role of Kroos and Modric in central midfield, with some pondering how long they will stay at the club. “Football nowadays demands collective commitment, individual quality, energy and experience.
“The atmosphere is created by the players. The humility of the veterans is the key, they have no ego. The youngsters are patient, knowing they have players with fantastic careers ahead of them. But Modric and Kroos don’t play because of the careers they’ve had, they play because they deserve it.”
The character of Ancelotti’s team would be very different without Kroos and Modric involved. However, Ancelotti himself is believed to be on his way out of Real Madrid, with the Italian strongly linked with the vacant Brazil job. It could be time for Los Blancos to consider what sort of side they want to be in the coming years.
Keeping Kroos and Modric for another season would be the easy, and maybe most logical, thing to do. But the best teams stay at the top of the sport by making difficult decisions, and this summer might present Real Madrid with an opportunity to build for the future. That future starts with the fading out of two superstars, who will be legends in the Spanish capital irrespective of the ending.