Real Madrid CF can no more escape talk of 'La Décima' than they could 'La Séptima'. Truthfully, I do not think they would want to any more. It has transformed from a millstone around their necks to an alluring incentive.
For those who don't speak Spanish (although 'La Décima' is now such a widely used term that I think it is as understandable to Anglophones as 'libero' or 'Tor!') the phrase refers to Los Blancos' quest for a tenth European Champion Clubs' Cup.
The so-called Séptima (or seventh) was fabled because Madrid had been without the trophy which they had come to view as their own since 1966. The 32-year wait until 1998 in Amsterdam was an agony and weighed heavily on them.
When José Mourinho was hired in 2010, as the reigning champion coach, it was because since winning the UEFA Champions League in 2002 Madrid had been unable to escape the earliest knockout rounds. Only tradition, not achievement, kept them in the European elite. Each of the Portuguese's seasons were a vast improvement – three last-four appearances – but no final, and no win.
He introduced a steel and athleticism which remains, but this campaign has suggested that Carlo Ancelotti, twice a European Cup winner as a player and twice as a coach, may have injected the extra elements that could make the marginal difference between reaching the semi-finals and lifting the trophy.
It is not unfair to use the word 'obsession' with regard to how everyone associated with Madridismo feels about conquering Europe – just as was the case when Ancelotti was a player and then coach at AC Milan. All clubs lust for glory, every player is able to trot out the phrases about ambition and 'maybe it's our year', but Madrid are in a minute cluster of organisations where getting to the UEFA Champions League final is a minimum expectation. In Ancelotti's days it was the same at San Siro.
Such pressure can asphyxiate. However, as the opportunity to claim the first treble – UEFA Champions League, Spanish Liga and Copa del Rey – in Real Madrid's illustrious history approaches, Ancelotti is taking the test in his stride. The playing system has been redesigned three or four times during the season until it is finely-tuned and precisely meets the capabilities of his squad.
The Italian has managed to make the Cristiano Ronaldo-Gareth Bale partnership more than the sum of its parts; there is a symbiotic excellence brewing there. Ancelotti has also defied one of the 'thou-shalt-nots' of football, rotating his two, highly competitive, goalkeepers across three different competitions, and yet Madrid still look coordinated and secure at the back.
Perhaps above all, there is currently a terrific sense of harmony in the squad and the plain evidence of a group of talents who deeply enjoy playing together and are further unified by the quest for 'La Décima' – as part of the 'trébol', of course.
Many challenges lie ahead but, unbeaten with an 87.5% win rate and top scorers by some distance, Madrid may well be ready for them.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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