For the first time in five seasons, Real Madrid are LaLiga champions, while they also have another European final to look forward to. How did they do it? From boasting one of the world’s strongest squads to hiring an intelligent and stabilising coach, there are a number of factors behind this championship. Yet one of them tends to get overlooked, even though it may just be the most important. It is the title-winning signing Real Madrid made from Lyon last summer. That of fitness coach Antonio Pintus, the man who got this team in title-winning shape.
Having only just arrived at the French club in the summer of 2016 on a three-year contract, Lyon were reluctant to let the 54-year-old Italian depart so suddenly, but the fitness guru had just received a call from Zinedine Zidane, one of his former players from his time working on the Juventus coaching staff. Like all of Pintus’ subjects, the Frenchman hated the exhausting workouts at the time, but quickly realised how beneficial they were in the long-run and he was determined to bring Pintus onto his team for his first full season in charge at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. When Zidane took over from Rafa Benítez midway through the 2015/16 campaign, one of the first comments he made as head coach was to say that “physically, we need to improve a lot”. Although he impressively made do for his first half a season in charge, Zidane wanted to correct this problem before the first ball of the 2017/18 campaign was kicked.
Eventually Real Madrid were able to tempt Pintus in to the Spanish capital and he began putting the star-studded squad through their pre-season paces. During their summer training in Montreal, he split the team into various groups to work through a variety of athletic exercises, from jumps to balance, but the key thing was that every session finished with a half-hour run. Every session.
There was blood, sweat, tears and vomit, but it was all for a good cause and set the team up for a season that would add up to 60 fixtures between all competitions. An earlier-than-expected elimination from the Copa del Rey was not viewed as a chance to down tools, but it instead allowed Pintus to run a refresher course at the beginning of 2017, with the trainer making the most of the free time to get the players back in shape for the second half of the campaign.
It has been during this second half of the season that Real Madrid have truly benefitted from rotation and Pintus’ input is key here as well. One of his tasks is to assess which players need a rest and when, with Zidane taking that information and deciding to leave several of his starters out for certain matches against La Liga’s weaker sides, even changing as many as nine players from week to week. Importantly, they tend to leave the star players out for the away matches, truly permitting them a full weekend of relaxation – they’d usually be expected to still attend a home match even if not playing, but don’t have to travel if absent from an away squad.
That rotation, combined with the generally superior stamina of the 2016/17 squad, has seen Real Madrid improve as they approach the business end of the season, rather than stumble across the finish line. Following their narrow loss in last month’s Clásico, Real Madrid knew that six wins from their final six matches would bring home the title and they ticked off those final half a dozen victories in emphatic fashion, winning five of the six by more than one goal. Late goals remained a common theme too and the fact they have netted a league-leading 23 goals in the final ten minutes of matches suggests that are benefitting from the ability to battle right to the very end.
Cristiano Ronaldo has been one of the most noticeable beneficiaries of this new approach – with 14 goals in his past nine matches, he is in peak form right when it matters most – but he is not the only one. In particular, Karim Benzema and Toni Kroos are in much better shape during this season’s run-in than they were in previous years.
Now, Los Blancos have just one match of their season remaining and they’re one victory away from adding a 12th Champions League to their trophy cabinet. If they manage to do so then Pintus’ exploits deserve a greater share of the column inches that Ronaldo will surely make his own. It would be his second Champions League triumph – he whipped Juventus into Champions League-winning shape in 1996 and was also the man behind the Monaco team that reached 2004’s showpiece event – if the Spanish side do indeed defeat Pintus’ former team.
Nobody is expecting it to be easy and this Champions League final is being dubbed as one of the most evenly matched in years, making every fraction of an advantage all the more important. As Pintus himself has said, “if you have two championship-calibre teams of the same technical level then the one who runs more will win.” Thanks to his efforts, if Real Madrid can match Juve for quality, then they should expect to out-run and defeat them in Cardiff.