Raúl, Fernando Morientes and the reshaping of Real Madrid as a continental power

Raúl, Fernando Morientes and the reshaping of Real Madrid as a continental power

This feature is part of Duology

As your footsteps take you down the corridors and closer to the trophy room of the Santiago Bernabéu, you can begin to feel them. Upon arrival, the enormity of sporting excellence instantly consumes you, as 116 trophies sit proudly on display, circulating the spirits of some of the most legendary players this game has ever known.

Ever since the arrival of Alfredo Di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás five years later, a standard of excellence has been entrenched at Real Madrid that has inevitably risen to astronomical heights. The clubs stranglehold over the European Cup – of which they won the first five editions – and over proceedings domestically intoxicated the masses to the point that success for Madridistas has almost become a birthright. In response, patience has become a luxury not afforded to many and if expectations are ultimately not met you will be cast aside as a lepper and mercilessly jeered.

For the past nine years, a dynamic duo gracing the hallowed pitch of Madrid’s footballing temple has been shattering record after record and consistently rewriting Champions League history. Since their arrival in 2009, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema have smashed the standard by which we measure our strike partnerships. Goal tallies that once set the bar for excellence have been re-written by the two with a Pulitzer’s touch.

For fans newer to the game, this has jaded their view of what should be considered normal, often times diminishing players from a bygone era. Yet when Ronaldo and Benzema set foot in the Spanish capital during the same summer, recent history had given them an unlikely pair in Los Blancos lore for which to emulate.

Read  |  In celebration of Raúl, Real Madrid’s swashbuckling icon

Similarly, the numbers of nine and seven would grace their backs, but the fanfare and expectations that preceded the arrivals of Raúl and Fernando Morientes were nowhere near as feverish. In part, it was due to the fact that both arrived at the club on different timelines and on two completely opposite paths. Regardless, for any incoming player of Real Madrid, the burden of expectation does not trail far behind yet no one could have envisioned what the pair would eventually become.

Raúl González Blanco and his Real Madrid love-affair was almost not to be. It was in the early 1990s that the young, wide-eyed forward was a glittering prospect for cross-town rivals Atlético Madrid. Off the back of a national title with their cadete team, club president Jesús Gil made the peculiar decision to close their youth academy in a cost-saving measure. Now free to relocate, Raúl was quickly snatched up by Real Madrid and given a spot in their famed youth academy: La Fabrica.

It took him just a few short months in the developmental system before his talents became undeniable to all. The incredible first touch, his unrelenting motor, the genius of his movements. First-team manager Jorge Valdano awarded Raúl his debut against Real Zaragoza at the age of 17 years and 124 days, which at the time made him the youngest player ever to feature for Real Madrid’s senior side.

Raúl would fail to hit the back of the net that day but, just a week later, he would seize his opportunity for poetic justice by scoring his first senior goal against Atlético in the Derbi Madrileño. He also played a key role in setting up another goal that night and was raucously applauded by many of the club’s supporters when he was later substituted. Any reservations they may have harboured in accepting a former Atléti prodigy were soon extinguished. On full display the rest of the season, his scoring exploits would directly contribute to Madrid capturing their 26th LaLiga title. Nevertheless, what Madridistas insatiably craved was the continental silverware they believed was rightfully theirs.

Read  |  Fernando Morientes and the haunting of Real Madrid

Down towards the south-east of the country, in Albacete, another fresh-faced striker had also recently begun sparking the embers of his professional career. Fernando Morientes made his debut for Albacete Balompié the season prior but was relegated to occasional spot duty from the bench. Going into the new campaign, Morientes was more determined than ever to make his footballing dream a reality and prove he belonged amongst the countries best. A week prior to Raul’s breakthrough goal, Morientes would snatch his own, scoring his first professional goal in a 2-0 win over Racing Santander.

Morientes’ stellar campaign naturally peaked the interest of larger clubs on the peninsula but he would need to climb another rung before reaching the peak of Spain’s footballing ladder. Two seasons would be spent in the friendly confines of Real Zaragoza; mostly accompanied upfront by Dani, who just so happened to be a Real Madrid youth product.

With the capital side’s eyes fixed squarely on the progress of their developmental project, it was in fact Morientes who would ultimately seize their gaze. At the time, Raúl’s burgeoning talents were being aided by the ageing legs of Predrag Mijatović and Davor Šuker. Although tremendous players in their own right, Madrid’s hierarchy craved a less-established player who could grow amongst the core of the team and compliment their star front-man with relative ease.

Morientes wasted little time ingratiating himself into the squad following his arrival from Real Zaragoza. Despite tremendous competition, he quickly cemented his place in the starting line-up and began to pierce the oppositions net with a sniper’s precision. His 13 goals in LaLiga was his team’s highest total that season, but a disappointing fourth-place finish would place critical importance on Europe. For 32 long years, Madridistas had been vexed by their European Cup drought. The competition they had long claimed as their own had come to own them. But that would all change on a starry night in Amsterdam when a lone Mijatović goal would be enough to see them past Juventus and destroy their hex.

The subsequent four years would see the duo claim two league titles and another two Champions League crowns. The synergy between Raúl and Morientes would also extend to the national team, where the two stood alongside each other for the World Cups in France and later South Korea and Japan. Ultimately, the election of Florentino Pérez in 2000 would alter the course of the club and their once unbreakable partnership.

Original Series   |  Duology

In the summer of 2002, it became increasingly clear that Pérez would continue to sign Galácticos, advancing a policy with an ethos centred around the collection of the world’s best attacking talent. It was no surprise, then, to see Real Madrid sign Brazilian superstar Ronaldo from Inter Milan. Despite the immense success Morientes and Raúl had achieved in leading Madrid’s front-line, there was simply no denying that Ronaldo would come in and take his place. Business is business.

Predictably, rumours began to swirl of a move away yet Morientes decided to stay at Madrid and fight for his place, to the surprise of many. He eventually fell even further down the pecking order as Vicente del Bosque curiously entrusted a young Javier Portillo ahead of him.

The long-simmering tension between Morientes and his manager would eventually come to a head in a February Champions League group stage match against Borussia Dortmund, as the two partook in a highly publicised spat; the player allegedly insulting the coach after being called to enter the pitch as a third replacement in the dying minutes. Whatever goodwill the two may have developed in the years prior had by then most certainly eroded. Morientes was not keen on the idea of wasting the prime years of his career wallowing in the dugout.

At the start of the 2003/04 season, Madrid agreed to let Morientes depart but were only interested in a temporary exodus. Negotiations initially saw the forward nearly join Schalke, but they eventually broke down before a deadline day loan to Monaco was agreed upon.

After returning to Real Madrid at the start of the 2004/05 campaign, Morientes’ hopes of forcing his way into the Real squad one final time were further dampened with the arrival of Michael Owen from Liverpool. He featured in 13 scoreless league matches, all as a substitute, and was transferred to Liverpool in the winter window for a fee of €9.3m.

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The unceremonious end to his Real Madrid tenure was met with mixed reaction. For a player who outscored Raúl at times and was incremental in re-establishing Los Blancos as a continental power, he was never able to fully endear himself to all of Madrid’s suffocating mob. Whether it was because he was deemed an outsider, or was a player who simply lacked the type of flashy game that sent supporters delirious, his contribution to the team-collective would regrettably only merit a footnote in the heat of the moment.

With Morientes’ departure, Champions League disappointment would soon become the norm, unleashing a nostalgia for the duo’s accomplishments that would precipitously make the heart grow fonder. Despite a certain lack of appreciation, Raúl was always a relentless supporter of Morientes the player but, more importantly, the man.

Madrid’s most beloved player was there as one of the witnesses to bless Morientes’ marriage and even wore his friend’s number nine jersey as his own in a gesture of support when he felt his dear friend was being unfairly treated. The pair’s bond would place them in a trance of footballing and friendship, cultivating the type of telepathic connection on the pitch that would see them pick out each other and anticipate the other’s movements before the opposition could even blink.

The sheer helplessness on the face of tormented defenders would become a common occurrence, as they were quickly resigned to the fact they were witnessing teamwork and greatness at its apex. While, individually, Morientes and Raúl may have not been the most technically gifted players to ever grace the pitch, collectively, they were an unstoppable goal-scoring force that struck fear into the hearts of all that opposed them.

Three triumphs on Europe’s grandest stage, and a combined 276 goals, can not be denied. Whether the general public will ever truly recognize their greatness is up for debate but their legacy will continue to live and breathe inside that hallowed trophy room for eternity.

By Justin Sherman @JShermOfficial

Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp

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