Michael Pavitt

What goes up must come down.

The phrase came to mind when watching Real Madrid exit the UEFA Champions League at the last-16 stage on Friday (August 7), prior to the coronavirus impacted competition beginning a sprint to the finish in Portugal over the coming weeks.

The exit came at the hands of an excellent Manchester City team, who many consider to be the favourites to emerge as competition winners in Lisbon on August 23.

Yet it appeared to definitively mark the end of Real Madrid’s near decade long dynasty, with the Spanish giants having triumphed in 2014, before clinching three titles in a row from 2016 to 2018.

The loss was not the same explosive ending as last year’s 4-1 home dismantling at the hands of an exciting Ajax side, but it marked a second successive elimination in the first knock-out stage of Europe’s elite club competition.

Several of the key pieces of the dynasty remained at the core of the side with the Real Madrid spine including the likes of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Karim Benzema, as well as the bartender styled Sergio Ramos watching in the stands due to suspension.

Their advancing years will undoubtedly see them ushered out the door at some stage in the future, with Real Madrid appearing set on transitioning to a younger group of stars to start a new cycle.

The transitional nature of the team, albeit one that has still triumphed in its domestic league, made me wonder whether it is possible to dismantle a successful side well.

Real Madrid are attempting to rebuild as a star generation reaches the end of their careers ©Getty Images
Real Madrid are attempting to rebuild as a star generation reaches the end of their careers ©Getty Images

It will be fascinating to see whether decades from now the departure of the team’s prize piece Cristiano Ronaldo after the 2018 Champions League triumph will be viewed as the start of a new successful spell in the competition or a potentially long run without success.

After all, who would have guessed after their 2002 triumph it would take Real Madrid another 12 years to become European champions again.

Given Spanish domination of the competition in the late 2000s to the end of 2019, it is perhaps not surprising that their arch-rivals Barcelona appear to be going through the same process.

Just as Real Madrid had a big decision to make with an ageing Ronaldo, Barcelona appear to have a similar situation with another player to have transcended the sport in Lionel Messi.

Victor Font, who is set to challenge current Barcelona President Josep Maria Bartomeu next year, claimed the club is facing the perfect storm in the coming years.

He told the BBC last month that the club risked becoming AC Milan or Manchester United, with the two clubs having endured challenging decades when attempting to rebuild teams and in the latter's case, replace an iconic manager in Sir Alex Ferguson.

Lionel Messi remains Barcelona's shining star but concerns have been raised over the team's future ©Getty Images
Lionel Messi remains Barcelona's shining star but concerns have been raised over the team's future ©Getty Images

"We have the perfect storm coming at Barcelona," Font said. 

"We have to replace the best generation that the sport has ever had in my view, with obviously Messi leading it.

"Competition over the last decade has become more and more professional.

"You see in the Premier League with clubs well managed, and even states owning clubs to put in a lot of money at a time where the finance of the club and economic model is stretched to the limit.

"Unless we do what we are trying, Barca has the risk of becoming a new AC Milan or a Manchester United, one of the most successful clubs in Europe that is not able to compete for the top titles."

With regard to Messi, the question is whether to think short-term and hope it enables arguably the best player to play the game to guide you to further success or twist and start a rebuild with the aim of success after his departure.

I wonder whether the challenge of a rebuild is so much greater when you have a player who has transcended their sport and still offers the surest route to success in the game.

Perhaps the comparison could be made to the Chicago Bulls, in the light of the Last Dance documentary released on Netflix earlier this year.

While the documentary largely centres around Michael Jordan and his career, the 1997 to 1998 season gave the series both its structure and its name.

The team’s efforts to secure a sixth NBA title in eight years and achieving a second "three-peat" came amid tension caused by general manager Jerry Krause seeking to begin a rebuild, with the future of coach Phil Jackson and stars like Jordan and Scottie Pippen uncertain.

Jordan remained critical of how the team was broken up after securing their sixth NBA title.

"It's maddening because I felt like we could have won seven," Jordan said. 

"I really believe that. We may not have, but man, just not to be able to try, that's something I just can't accept, for whatever reason. I just can't accept it."

Jerry Krause attempted to rebuild the Chicago Bulls after the 1997 to 1998 NBA season ©Getty Images
Jerry Krause attempted to rebuild the Chicago Bulls after the 1997 to 1998 NBA season ©Getty Images

An excerpt from Krause's unfinished and unpublished memoir was released by NBC  following the documentary, which saw the general manager explain his rationale for the decision to break-up the team.

Krause argued that cracks had already appeared in the team with the declining fitness making it likely they would soon be unable to compete.

"Put yourself in our shoes as we walk out of that room," he wrote. 

"What would you do? Did we break up a dynasty or was the dynasty breaking up of age, natural attrition of NBA players with little time to recuperate and the salary-cap rules that govern the game?"

While Krause's logic may well have been correct, people will point to the 1998 triumph as being the last time the Chicago Bulls won the NBA to suggest he made the wrong decision.

The Bulls are not the only dynasty to have struggled since their greatest run of success.

You could even look to Liverpool ending their 30-year wait to win the English top-flight for the 19th time this season, having been the dominant domestic force during the 1970s and 1980s.

Arguably their greatest rivals Manchester United are a rare example of a club that successfully transitioned from one great team to another, when Sir Alex Ferguson led them to 13 Premier League titles during his tenure.