Can Real Madrid be the first club to retain the Champions League?
The Champions League Round of 16 kicks off on Tuesday and, ahead of the return of European club football's elite competition, ESPN FC is asking -- and answering -- a series of "burning questions".
To begin, Graham Hunter assesses the holders' chances of successfully defending the trophy.
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE BURNING QUESTIONS
- Hunter: Can Real Madrid successfully defend the trophy?
- Horncastle: Is this underachieving Juventus' biggest test yet?
- Marcotti: Will a previous winner manage another triumph?
- Cox: Which English club has the best chance of glory?
- Honigstein: Are Bayern Munich ready for another title?
Four is the magic number. Apparently.
Of the arguable favourites to win the Champions League this season, Bayern Munich, Chelsea and Real Madrid have all crashed to horrendously embarrassing and unexpected, four-goal defeats in recent weeks. Bayern lost 4-1 at Wolfsburg on Jan. 30, Chelsea 4-2 at home to Bradford City on Jan. 24 in the FA Cup, and Real Madrid were thrashed 4-0 at Atletico on Feb. 7.
But apparently it's only Madrid, the reigning European Champions, in crisis. They are dead in the water as far as their trophy options are concerned, if you listen to the doomsayers.
Suddenly, they are listless, useless, strife-ridden, lackadaisical (generate a list of similar put-downs and choose your favourite). The team that played super football and won 22 straight matches in late 2014? That was our imagination, a mirage.
Well, I beg to differ. Obviously, the worst thing Los Blancos did with respect to their chances of winning "the cup with the big ears" this season was lift it this past May. Nobody has retained it in the tournament's 22 years. Hoist it in May, and you effectively kiss that feeling goodbye for at least 24 months.
Statistically, however, just about the best thing they can do right now if they want to be the first club to win consecutively is stumble domestically. Let me make my case.
The first of Madrid's modern quartet of European triumphs was in 1998. Crisis? No chance of the Champions League? Let me tell you about it. Under Jupp Heynckes (remember him? Bit of a Champions League pedigree, just like Carlo Ancelotti), Madrid hit the buffers at this precise stage of the season.
Between December and March, they lost to Real Betis, Real Sociedad, Valencia, Tenerife and Barcelona and drew with Oviedo, Zaragoza, Atleti, Deportivo, Racing, Valladolid and Athletic. Before the season ended, they also lost to Celta, Zaragoza and Espanyol.
Transpose that sequence of results, or anything like it, to today, and the screams of angst and anger would reach sonic agony. In La Liga, they finished fourth, a full 11 points off winners Barcelona. Indeed, had it not been for a goal by Predrag Mijatovic 14 minutes from the end of their domestic season, they'd have finished seventh.
Funny old chap, Mijatovic -- six days later, his single goal also won Madrid the Champions League against Juventus in Amsterdam.
Cut to 1999-2000. After nine games, Madrid were 15th, with just 10 points. Think of it. Just at this same stage of the year, Vicente Del Bosque's team were utterly humiliated 8-3 by Bayern Munich across two consecutive Champions League group games in what was then a 17-match slog to the title (there are four fewer games these days).
The brave boys in white lost their last three home games in La Liga to Racing Santander, Alaves and Valladolid. They conceded six and scored twice. Fifth by the end of the season, they nevertheless corrected things against Bayern and won a fraught semifinal 3-2, then went out in the Champions League final to tear Valencia apart 3-0.
Finally, 2002. Exactly 13 years ago this month, Del Bosque's team lost consecutive away games to Valladolid and Athletic. Within a couple weeks, they were losing the Copa del Rey final at the Bernabéu on the day of their centenary to Deportivo La Coruña.
Just to propel my argument a little further, Madrid were top after 33 league matches but lost three and drew one of their last five -- to Real Sociedad, Osasuna, Deportivo La Coruña and Mallorca -- while conceding nine and scoring just once. They finished nine points off champions Valencia but sequentially eliminated Bayern and Barcelona to reach the Champions League final at Hampden where, with blood, sweat and tears, they beat Bayer Leverkusen, thanks to that Zinedine Zidane goal.
It was their ninth European crown, achieved against the background of a torrid domestic season.
Okay, just pump the brakes for a second. Is it preferable for Madrid to be approaching an away tie with Schalke with important injuries, a drop in match tempo and Cristaino Ronaldo in poor form? No, absolutely not. Until the wins over Schalke and Bayern Munich the past season, Germany had been a place of horror for Madrid, a graveyard for many of their UEFA campaigns.
But right now, it's about scrapping and scraping through, no matter what. Tt's something that, given that the two ties against a side which (admittedly) has been good enough to draw with Pep Guardiola's Bayern twice this season are separated by three weeks, Madrid will be decent bets to achieve.
The argument isn't that it's better to be stumbling about domestically if you want to stride tall in Europe's elite tournament. It's just that domestic travails and continental excellence are not mutually exclusive.
The most obvious tendency across all the reigning champions' failures to retain the Champions League is something always happens. Injuries, suspension, loss of form, bad luck, eccentric refereeing, complacency, dressing room rows, erupting volcanoes (Barcelona 2010) ... there's always something.
But in Carlo Ancelotti, Madrid have a guy who has lifted "this trophy" to the sky five times, as either player or coach; he knows the route better than any current manager. He's also made it to the final a couple more times without winning it. He's a guy with whom this competition seems to have a continuing love affair. Last season, he needed to use 22 players to win it, and I reckon he'll understand how to cope with his current spate of injuries.
Above all, there's the elusive, indefinable, quixotic element of luck. Good fortune suddenly shining on you -- not throughout the campaign but at important, definitive moments.
Those dismissing Madrid right now must think their "who smashed that mirror?" spate of unfortunate injuries is evidence Lady Luck ain't dancing this season. But what if Madrid suddenly have Pepe, Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric and Ronaldo fully fit from March onward? Sounds dangerous, no?
Laugh at their travails if you want. Relish a rich aristocrat coping with hard times, fine. But write off their chances of retaining the Champions League at your peril.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.