Champions League final: 16 conclusions

Date published: Sunday 29th May 2016 12:01

Champions League

* Sport isn’t always about fairy tales; sometimes the bad guys have to win. That’s certainly how Real Madrid’s victory – and Atletico’s defeat – felt, with Diego Simeone’s team spirit falling agonisingly short against the financial strength of their city rivals.

Europe has fallen in love with Simeone’s team. They were the plucky underdogs, the have-a-go heroes who had knocked out Barcelona and Bayern Munich. They were looking to atone for final heartbreak in 2014, but only discovered further depths of despair. Having come within a minute of victory last time around, penalty defeat was so utterly cruel. The tears will flow long into the Milanese night.

This bias can be forgiven, for everything is piled against Atletico in Spain. The odds are stacked so firmly in Real and Barcelona’s favour that any victory against them feels like a victory for the people, on behalf of every other La Liga team. Add in the diabolical behaviour of Pepe and the crude and cynical fouls of Sergio Ramos, and it was hard not to be completely deflated by Atletico’s loss. 

“I have a group of very strong players – I told them out on the pitch after the game not to cry. Today was not meant to be for us,” Simeone said after the game. “I believe in destiny, and it’s clear our destiny tonight wasn’t to win it.” Stop it Diego, you’re making us sob again.

 

* Yet it would be foolish not to praise Real Madrid too. From a position of disarray after the departure of Rafa Benitez, they end the season as champions of Europe for the 11th time. In extra-time they looked dead on their feet, but somehow summoned the energy to stay in the game with cramp setting in. Whatever you want to say about Real, Zinedine Zidane’s side kept on keeping on this season. Newsflash: They don’t really care if you don’t like them.

Never has this been more true than in the case of Cristiano Ronaldo, seen by many as Real Madrid incarnate. As soon as Ronaldo’s penalty hit the back of Jan Oblak’s net, the criticism came in a tidal wave. Has there ever been a footballer who has received quite so much hate for his personality, save those with far murkier rap sheets?

Ronaldo has scored 16 Champions League goals this season, and 78 in total for Real Madrid. He was far from fit in Milan, staggering round the pitch for most of the night. Yet when Zidane needed a man to score a penalty, he would have preferred no other player. This was Ronaldo’s third Champions League title; he’ll get over you thinking that he’s an arrogant d*ck. 

 

 

If there was any doubt of the spirit in which the match would be played, it came after 30 seconds. Koke went in for a challenge that he was perfectly entitled to compete for, and probably committed a foul. The manner in which Pepe sprinted over to remonstrate with the Atletico midfielder and then demand a yellow card to be produced set the tone.

Less than a minute later, Pepe was rolling on the ground after a shove from Fernando Torres. Suddenly the 2014 final didn’t seem so long ago.

 

You can understand why Atletico would want to break up play early on, aiming to get under the skin of their city rivals. Yet the flip-side to that strategy was the number of free-kicks they gave away in their own half, allowing Real Madrid to threaten from set-pieces. It eventually cost them dear.

After five minutes, Jan Oblak saved Atleti for the first time. Gareth Bale’s free-kick found Casemiro five yards out, and the Brazilian guided a volley at goal. The shot might have been directed toward the middle of the goal, but Oblak still had to adjust his body in order to block the ball with his foot.

Ten minutes later, Atleti did not get as lucky. After another needless free-kick was conceded, a crossed set-piece by Toni Kroos was flicked on by Bale. Having been excellent in the first instance, Oblak was fooled by Ramos’ slight touch, the ball squirming under the goalkeeper. Having equalised in the final moments of normal time in 2014 to break Atleti hearts, Ramos did the same in the first half in the San Siro.

Ramos receives deserved criticism for his disciplinary record, but he does have a wonderful knack of scoring goals in big matches. He is now the only defender to score in multiple Champions League finals since the 1992 rebrand.

 

* Yes, Ramos was offside for the goal; his foot was approximately 8cm ahead of play when Bale flicked on his header. But can we please have a summer amnesty where we don’t have to have a witch-hunt every time this sort of thing is spotted?

Given that it took BT five or six minutes to finally determine the illegality of the goal, let’s not pile the blame upon an assistant referee. It’s a bloody difficult job.

 

* Having scored the opening goal, Zidane clearly ordered his team to carry out their pre-planned tactic. Rather than pushing on the front foot in search of a second goal, they instead sat back and invited Atletico onto them. Casemiro sat just in front of the defence, with Kroos and Luka Modric not much further forward.

That left large gaps in midfield, but Real were taking care not to allow Atletico to break on the counter-attack. They had got their lead, and were now intent on keeping it that way. It’s might sound a distinctly un-Galactico strategy, but also entirely logical.When Champions League titles are on the line, the means are secondary to the end.

 

* For their part, Atletico looked shell-shocked. The build-up to the final centred on Simeone’s side’s ability to thwart Europe’s most successful sides in the quarter and semi-finals. The first half was a bad case of after the Lord Mayor’s show.

Atletico have been successful against their city rivals this season by not giving them a second to settle and pick their way through midfield, stopping the supply from Modric and Kroos. It was sadly lacking in Milan before the break. Gone was the hunger to snap at the heels of the opponent. Gone was the intensity of pressing without the ball. Gone was the quick bursts forward on the counter-attack. Gone was the ability of Antoine Griezmann and Fernando Torres to find space in the final third.

In fact, Atletico’s first-half performance was about as far away from a Diego Simeone masterclass as it is possible to imagine; his face was presumably wet with spittle after laying into his team at half-time. Simeone was forced into a change to his game plan, making a substitution at the break. Yannick Carrasco was introduced in place of Augusto Fernandez, with Koke moved into the centre from the left side.

Koke actually touched the ball ten times more than any other player in the first half, but was unable to make any inroads against Dani Carvajal, restricted to playing 40 yards from goal. Simeone’s aim was to offer more of an attacking threat on the left, while allowing Koke to conduct proceedings in central midfield.

 

* Within two minutes of the restart Atletico got their first golden chance, although Simeone could claim very little credit for Pepe’s brainless foul on Fernando Torres. There was a great deal made of Torres possibly diving, but that’s simply not true. The most you could say is that the striker won the penalty through his actions, planting his foot into the turf. Unfortunately for Pepe, he sprinted into the challenge, didn’t win the ball and then caught the man. That’s a penalty.

Having previously missed against Real Madrid this season, Griezmann would have been forgiven for nerves. The Frenchman chose to eradicate those nerves by kicking the ball in the style of a drunken yob on a punching machine. His penalty struck the bar with such force that the ball had left the penalty area by the time another player touched it.

 

* There is no doubt that Simeone’s words had the desired effect on Atletico, who were noticeably more upbeat and proactive than in the first half. They were guilty of shooting from distance too often, but certainly forced their way back into the contest.

Yet it was not Atleti’s improvement that changed the match as much as Zidane’s substitutions. If you were to ask me for a list of midfielders who I would like to have on my team when defending a 1-0 lead, Kroos would undoubtedly make my top five. Bringing him off in place of Isco – effectively a like-for-like-but-slightly-worse change – seemed bizarre, particularly given the obvious fitness issues of Ronaldo.

 

1) Maybe rather than ‘tiptoeing’, people just don’t think that.

2) The offside was not Mark Clattenburg’s call.

3) There are at least as many people who believe it was a penalty (me included) than don’t.

4) What has the Daily Telegraph’s Paul Hayward got against Clattenburg?

Actually, Clattenburg managed the game excellently, ignoring most of the histrionics and diffusing any of the angry disagreements that inevitably flared up. The most obvious of those involved some classic Pepe sh*thousery, but Clattenburg dismissed the Portuguese’s claims like he was a pouting child moaning about someone eating all its sweets.

The boy from Conset done good… Okay, fair enough. This was a bit f**king weird.

Welcome to football’s first half-lizard referee. And you can keep your cunnilingus jokes to yourselves, thanks.

 

* When the Atletico equaliser finally came, it was a thing of absolute beauty from start to finish. Gabi chipped the ball forward with exactly the right weight and distance to allow Juanfran to volley the ball across goal. Substitute Carrasco, brought on to get forward and create danger, was in the perfect place to do just that.

“He can change the rhythm, score, dribble,” said Simeone of Carrasco in the build-up to the game. “In the minutes we use him he will be the difference-maker. In a final, one minute can be everything.” Nailed it.

 

* From the moment that Atletico equalised, the tide turned sharply. Having already made three substitutions, every Real player suddenly seemed to have lost 20% of their energy. Every Atleti player was reinvigorated, sensing danger. On came the cramp. 

As extra-time began, Atletico were forcing one-way traffic. They won every first and second ball, pouncing on misplaced passes and Real’s lack of focal point up front. Only of the last 12 European Cup finals to go to extra-time had failed to reach penalties, but Atletico looked likely to make full amends for 2014. By the time penalties came, their chance had gone.

 

* Idea for a gameshow: Luka Modric, with a football, facing a series of quicker, stronger robots and still managing to pick out a pass with nine or ten cyborgs closing in on him. One hour a day, every day. Primetime TV. People would watch. OK, I would watch.

Honestly, the man is a bloody magician. To make 65 of your 71 passes when so many of them are into the final third or played under significant pressure in a European final is just obscene. With Ivan Rakitic next to him in Euro 2016, Croatia have to be worth a little bet. One thing is for sure: You don’t want to miss their matches.

 

* Although he was on the losing side, Gabi deserves immense praise for his improvement after half-time. With Atletico looking lost before the break, their captain set the example from then on in.

At his best – and as journalist Ken Earlys tweeted – Gabi has the look of Roy Keane in that ability to be all things to all men in every part of a midfield. He made more passes and had more touches than any other player on the pitch. He made more tackles than any of his teammates and more interceptions than any other player in the game. He created two chances to complete the set, and his chipped, or scooped, passes are becoming a thing of beauty.

Sadly, at 32 you wonder if this was Gabi’s last shot at the European Cup. The fact that he has never played for Spain makes me cry about England’s midfield.

 

* However, the star of the midfield show was Casemiro. I wrote before the semi-final against Manchester City that the Brazilian could be the perfect grit amongst Real Madrid’s glamour, and never has that proved as useful as in Milan. With Real under the cosh in the last hour before penalties, it was left for one man to hold back the tide.

A quick rundown of Casemiro’s game, if you will:

– 59 of 65 passes completed.
– 97 touches of the ball, more than any teammate.
– Won every single one of his aerial duels
– Made eight tackles, more than any other player on the pitch and double the number of any other Real player.
– Won possession on 15 occasions. Second best in the match was Gabi with 11, second best for Real was Marcelo with seven.
– Lost possession only nine times in 120 minutes. Which is bloody silly for a central midfielder.

Bringing Casemiro back into the Real Madrid fold might just have been the best thing that Benitez did in Madrid. It also might have won them the Champions League.

 

* He’s come a long way from those diabolical ‘5’ baseball caps. I’m just not sure in which way that is.

 

Daniel Storey

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