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Why Real Madrid's bid to win back-to-back Champions Leagues is difficult

You huffed and puffed to get to 10 -- because it's a nice, round number -- and, after a 10-year wait, you hit the mark in 2014.

Last year, you got to 11, which is more than one-and-a-half times as many as your nearest challenger. How do you follow that up? Why, by trying to defend your title of European champion, which is something no club has done since 1990, a distant time when there were two Germanys and only one famous Kardashian (Robert).

Few clubs are as aware of their place in history and in the record books as Real Madrid and that only makes their pursuit of the last back-to-back winners, Arrigo Sacchi's legendary Milan team of 1988-89 and 1989-90, that much more compelling.

Of course, it was a different Champions League back then both in format -- other than the holders it was only open to the previous season's champions -- and in substance -- we did not have the extreme polarisation we have today, with a handful of clubs hoarding the world's superstars.

Whether repeating was easier then or now is a matter for debate. In the old days, getting in was tougher, but there was less competition once you were there. Today, you can be perennial participants without winning much of anything, but there are plenty more clubs with the tools to win it. That said, the number of clubs even just getting to two or more consecutive finals has shriveled up. Only Manchester United -- in 2007-08 and 2008-09 -- have done it in the past 15 years.

Contrast this with the past. In the 15 seasons between 1986 and 2001, AC Milan and Juventus both reached three consecutive finals, while Ajax and Valencia did it back-to-back, as did Milan on another occasion.

It's simply a longer, more grueling competition now. The initial group stage makes upsets less likely, which in turn means most of the big boys make it to the knockout phase, whereas in the past there were fewer big clubs to begin with and it only took a single slip to see them crash out.

So to win it, much more so than in the past, you're more likely to need to overcome a procession of your peers.

Another factor is that cross-pollination has made it far harder for a team to keep its competitive advantage. The days when Inter and their Catenaccio in the 1960s, or Ajax's brand of Total Football in the 1970s, could carry their clubs to the top and keep them there while the rest of Europe figured out how to come up with a viable tactical counterapproach are long gone.

Innovations are copied almost immediately, stylistic differences between countries have all but disappeared and top coaches jump from juggernaut to juggernaut with ease.

Carlo Ancelotti will be managing Bayern having already taken charge of Milan, Real Madrid, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain; Pep Guardiola is at Manchester City after being at Barcelona and Bayern. More than half of the managers of the 16 highest-seeded clubs have coached in multiple countries. You're unlikely to take anybody by surprise these days.

Of course, there are other factors specific to Real Madrid that make a repeat unlikely. Their coach, Zinedine Zidane, has less than a year of top-flight experience under his belt. There are off-the-pitch distractions to deal with, such as a looming transfer ban for signing underage players (the club have taken their appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport) and Cristiano Ronaldo's contract, which expires in 2018.

There's also a sense that the window of opportunity is beginning to close for the core of the club. Pepe (33), Ronaldo (31), Luka Modric (31) and Sergio Ramos (30) are all the wrong side of 30. Karim Benzema is 28 and, though he is coming off a prolific season, he has been slowed by injuries and off-pitch issues.

It's not just the age of Madrid's stars, it's the mileage. This is the 15th season in the top flight as a starter for both Pepe and Ronaldo, the 12th for Ramos, 11th for Modric and 10th for Marcelo. It all adds up.

The curious thing about Real Madrid's title defence is that, for the second consecutive year, there has been no massive summer spending spree. This year's additions -- Alvaro Morata, acquired from Juventus, and Marco Asensio, returning from a loan spell at Espanyol -- are penciled in as squad players, just like last season's signings: Lucas Vazquez, Mateo Kovacic and Danilo.

That speaks to chemistry and a starting XI that was so strong already that finding someone who can crack it is bound to be difficult and expensive. Better, then, to spend on youngsters and squad depth and try to grow replacements in-house.

It's a formula that's rare among top European clubs, perhaps due to the fear of needing to replace four or five declining stars at the same time. But it's the path Real Madrid have chosen and it's designed to increase their chances in the here and now.

And yet the bookies make Real Madrid just third favorites, behind Barcelona and Bayern. It's probably not a question of talent. They know just how tough it is to repeat as European champions in this day and age.

Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.


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