Champions League final: 16 Conclusions

Date published: Sunday 4th June 2017 10:57

* “I am annoyed because it feels like you are persecuting me. You say, ‘Cristiano has dropped his level and that is why Madrid [are suffering]’. No, if everyone was at my level, maybe we would be top.”

Speaking in February 2016, this was a rare moment when Cristiano Ronaldo allowed the mask to slip. His on-pitch tantrums have become the norm, but the Portuguese so very rarely allows his frustrations to show outside of a game.

The Real Madrid forward has been haunted by criticism throughout his career, but with the club struggling 16 months ago, he was the lightning rod. His performances were butchered, his demeanour questioned. Having just turned 31, this was the start of the inevitable downward spiral that eventually consumes any and every athlete.

What each of us failed to recognise is that Ronaldo is no ordinary athlete. He is not human but cyborg, a near-perfect footballing machine that the world revels in finding the slightest flaw in. He is a sporting deity who always has the last laugh.

By the end of that season, Ronaldo had helped Real win the Champions League. A couple of months later, he guided Portugal to their first ever major trophy, the European Championship. This, scoring two goals in the Champions League final, and assisting Los Blancos as they paired La Liga glory with Europe’s premier title, caps perhaps the greatest individual footballing year ever seen. Keep booing him. Keep doubting him. Keep finding those slightest of slight flaws. Ronaldo will keep scoring. Ronaldo will keep winning.

 

* In the build-up, Massimiliano Allegri claimed that this Juventus side was “different”. He had coached them in their most recent Champions League final – a 3-1 defeat to Barcelona. The following year, they fell to Bayern Munich in extra-time in the last-16. This? As Allegri himself said, this was “different”.

It felt like his assessment was absolutely right at one stage. Juventus started the better side, yet they went behind. But they responded admirably with one of the finest goals in European Cup history and were once again in the ascendancy. Unfortunately, the Old Lady then scuttled off to bed, and Real did not hesitate in ransacking the place.

They were not expected to reach the final in 2015, and so the loss was less devastating. Here, it really did feel as though the top two teams in Europe faced off against each other. Both had won their respective league titles; neither was the underdog. But Real seemed to find another gear at a time when Juventus simply ran out of legs. Their 21-year wait for a Champions League trophy goes on, and with Europe’s elite expected to strengthen after a campaign of under-performance for many, Turin might have to sustain itself on that 1996 win a while longer.

 

* Had the Champions League final been staged anywhere else, there would have been no debates about either side’s starting line-up. Eleven players had played at least 600 minutes of Juventus’ route to the final, and Allegri would predictably start each of them.

It was a similar case for Real, whose ten most-used players in this season’s competition were all named by Zinedine Zidane in the starting line-up. But the 11th member on that list – Gareth Bale – had not featured since limping off in April’s El Clasico defeat. The clamour to see the Welshman from the beginning in Cardiff was so powerful that reports emerged from Spain little more than an hour before kick-off that Zidane would gamble by starting the forward, who cannot have been close to match fitness.

As it happened, said reports were wide of the mark. Bale was treated to a role on the bench as Isco retained his place after impressing in his absence. The Spaniard was one of the game’s best players as Zidane’s decision to stick, not twist, paid off.

 

* That James Rodriguez was not named in Real’s starting XI was unsurprising; that the Colombian did not even make Zidane’s 18-man matchday squad marks what is surely the end of his career at the Santiago Bernabeu. It felt as though he had the world at his feet when, having starred at the 2014 World Cup, he became a £71million Galactico aged just 23. But some transfers, for whatever reason, simply do not work, and Rodriguez and Real never looked like a comfortable fit from the very start. The club will surely have to accept that they will not be able to recoup their initial outlay this summer, but the player’s future lies elsewhere – and it should be remembered that he is still a wonderful talent, but only at a club that actually needs him. From Monaco to Madrid, the forward will surely end up in either Milan or Manchester.

 

* The pre-match narrative was of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. Real had scored in every match so far this season, last failing to do so against Manchester City in April 2016. Juventus had conceded just three times en-route to the final, and boasted a defence that had silenced the most potent attacks in world football.

Few expected, therefore, that the Italians would register each of the first three shots on target. Gonzalo Higuain tested Keylor Navas first with a header, then with a long-range strike. Both were routine saves, but the Costa Rican left many wondering why his club so openly court David de Gea year after year with a wonderful stop from Miralem Pjanic’s half-volley. Seven minutes had passed, and although no knock-out blows were landed, this was confirmation, were it needed, that Real Madrid were in a fight.

 

* One of the consequences of Juve’s early dominance was that Ronaldo was thoroughly isolated. His first real moment came 18 minutes in when he received the ball on the counter and shaped up to shoot, before four men in black and white robbed him. The Portuguese protested to referee Felix Brych as Dani Alves raced off with possession.

At that stage, Ronaldo cut a frustrated figure, complaining to the officials at his petulant best. But just two minutes he reminded the world that he is one of the finest players to ever grace the game. After fine work from Luka Modric, Ronaldo traded passes with the over-lapping Dani Carvajal, before curling a deflected effort into the bottom corner. It was only the second time in this season’s tournament that Juventus had fallen behind.

With that goal, Ronaldo joined Alfredi di Stefano as the only players to score in three or more Champions League finals. He was imploring his own fans to stop booing him just last month.

 

* Many clubs would cower to the sheer attacking force that Real possess after conceding, but not Juventus. Instead of retreating into their shell after Ronaldo’s opener, they diligently and patiently stuck to their game plan. It would pay off sooner than most expected.

The Italian side were punished for a rare moment of defensive weakness, but within seven minutes they took advantage of Real’s lack of pressing in the midfield. Leonardo Bonucci strolled forward from defence, and launched a 40-yard pass out to Alex Sandro. The left-back volleyed a cross in for Higuain, who chested the ball down, tapped it to Mario Mandzukic, and watched as the Croatian looped an overhead kick into the top corner and past the despairing glove of Navas.

Now watching in the dugout, Zidane had just witnessed a Champions League final goal to contend with his wondrous volley against Bayer Leverkusen in 2002. Whether this was quite as impressive overall is up for debate, but it matched that effort in inherent beauty and importance, and surpassed it in terms of difficulty of opponent. From Bonucci’s initial pass all the way to Mandzukic’s acrobatics, the ball did not touch the floor once. The reigning European champions had been rendered mere training dummies.

 

* Higuain’s involvement in that goal would be his only lasting contribution all evening. His two early shots, speculative efforts though they were, represented his only efforts on goal. He was dispossessed four times – more than any other player. He completed 15 passes – the lowest of any outfield starter, and only one more than Navas.

Dybala hardly fared better. His sting was removed by the brilliant, quiet but efficient Casemiro as Juventus struggled to create many opportunities. That their only goal came from a moment of instinctive brilliance tells its own story. Individuals need to step up and perform on occasions like this, but only those in purple obliged.

 

* It was an enthralling, thrilling and open first half, with the two sides sharing 13 shots between them. But what was altogether more settling for the viewer was the sheer amount of cynical fouls. Juventus registered 10 and Real 13 as Dybala was followed by Sergio Ramos (obviously) and Carvajal into receiving a booking. Toni Kroos joined them five minutes into the second half for a stamp on Sami Khedira. It was refreshing to see two sides produce such wonderful football and elite bastardy in tandem.

 

* By the hour mark, the early spark that lit up the Millennium Stadium had faded. Juventus were reluctant to offer much more than resolute defending, while Real struggled to take advantage of their dominance in possession.

It felt as though it would take an individual error to separate the two teams, but few would have predicted the eventual culprit in this case. Alves intercepted a pass in the centre of the pitch and burst forward on the right-hand side, but his pass to Dybala was wayward and easily intercepted by Modric. The Brazilian lay prone on the ground instead of tracking back as Karim Benzema attacked down his flank. Within a few seconds, Casemiro had put Real in front. The nature of the goal – via a huge deflection off Khedira – meant that Alves’ mistake was no talking point. But he will know that it was his error, not Khedira’s, that saw Juventus’ grip on the game slip.

 

* The game was finely poised after 60 minutes; by 64, it was game over.

Modric endured a relatively quiet first half, aside from his contribution to the opening goal, but the Croatian was the difference in the second period. His run was picked out by Carvajal on the right, and the subsequent cut-back found Ronaldo. Those who had seen any of his previous 599 career goals for club and country knew the outcome.

The goal saw a number of uncharacteristic mistakes from the Juventus defence. It was as if Alves’ earlier error had opened the floodgates, and there is no worse player to show any sign of weakness to. Ronaldo even made Buffon look foolish with the finish.

 

* Of course, Modric’s improvement in the second half was no coincidence. The 31-year-old was infinitely more influential after moving to the right-hand side of the midfield, with Kroos central and Isco on the left.

For those who doubted Zidane’s managerial acumen before Saturday, or at the very least did not believe him to be among the upper echelon of coaches, this was irrefutable evidence to the contrary. Many perceived the Frenchman to merely be the rich kid who has inherited the biggest and best toys, but he knows precisely how to use them.

Coaches are judged on their poor tactical decisions. A manager is blamed for defeat if a substitute fails, or if a tactical tweak or change of system does not bring immediate success. Rarely do they ever receive proportionate praise when they affect games positively through their choices. Allegri has managed seven teams in different divisions over 14 years; he was outmanoeuvred by a younger, less seasoned opponent in Cardiff.

Not since Arrigo Sacchi and AC Milan in 1990 had a manager and team ever retained the European Cup. Zidane, in his first 17 months as a manager, has won five trophies, including claiming Europe’s elite prize back-to-back. When judging managers in the current game, it is difficult to argue against ZZ being top – even if he does disagree.

 

* “That is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen on a football pitch,” said an incandescent Ian Darke as the game entered its final throes. A punch had not been thrown, nor was the BT Sport commentator describing the performance of Higuain.

The comment came about after Ramos engineered the sending off of Juan Cuadrado 18 minutes after the Colombian entered the fray. The Real defender’s histrionics after the Juve winger merely brushed him undoubtedly played on the mind of Brych as he brandished a second yellow card. But one has to applaud Ramos’ sheer dedication to unadulterated sh*thousery, particularly with the game settled and therefore with absolutely nothing to accomplish.

 

* If Alves was a relative disappointment in the final, his mirror image was one of the stars of the final. One Brazilian struggled, but Marcelo ensured some Samba satisfaction.

Real’s left – it would do him an injustice to describe him as a mere ‘left-back’ or ‘left-winger’, for he dominates the flank so much – provided a constant threat, and his personal reward finally arrived in stoppage time. He bamboozled Alves with a sublime piece of skill before centring for substitute Marco Asensio, who crowned a 4-1 victory. Juve conceded more goals in the final than they had in 12 group and knock-out stage games beforehand (3).

“I don’t like to compare them,” said Zidane in January when asked if he sees any of the legendary Roberto Carlos in the 29-year-old. While the likeness is obvious, Marcelo is an undoubted great in his own right. Six players have started in each of Real’s successes in 2014, 2015 and here in Cardiff. Ramos, Modric, Ronaldo and Benzema have all had their individual moments of glory, but Marcelo and fellow full-back Carvajal are the unsung heroes.

 

* Many a neutral wanted to see Juventus claim their first Champions League in over two decades on Saturday for myriad reasons. Most wanted Buffon to enjoy his crowning moment. Some wanted to simply see someone new claim the trophy. Others wanted to witness the downfall of Real and Ronaldo.

Perhaps a few people wanted Allegri’s men to overcome the odds so that Andrea Barzagli’s quite ridiculous tackle on Isco just minutes into the second half would be more fondly remembered.

Like life-saving surgery, it was a procedure that could not afford even the slightest mistake. Barzagli might only have saved the patient for so long, but the timing and execution of this tackle at a time when the scores were level was masterful.

 

* Real’s five consecutive titles from 1956 to 1960. Ajax’s three crowns from 1971 to 1973. Bayern Munich’s own treble from 1974 to 1976. Liverpool’s four trophies in eight years, and Nottingham Forest’s two in between. Milan’s double triumph in 1989 and 1990. Pep Guardiola’s two-time-winning Barcelona machine.

When history comes to judge this Real Madrid side, it will do so not necessarily as one of the best, but most certainly as one of the most successful. There are areas in which Los Blancos can still improve, but their sheer will to win is admirable and all-consuming. They have essentially become a team moulded in the identity of their star player. Three trophies in four years in football’s most competitive tournament really is quite a remarkable achievement.

 

Matt Stead

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