How Real Madrid became European Champions for the 11th time

As the San Siro finally began to empty following one of the tensest finals in European Cup history, two schools of thought quickly set in on quite how Real Madrid had managed to ultimately pip neighbours Atleti to win the trophy for the 11th time. Neutrals, who almost without exception were rooting for Diego Simeone’s side quickly came to the conclusion that Los Blancos had simply got lucky. Meanwhile the Real Madrid camp predictably took a different view suggesting that experience had won through in the end and that their penalty shootout victory was no fluke.

To some extent, the final mirrored Real Madrid’s season in the competition. Certainly lady luck favoured them at times but they also displayed a great deal of experience and coolness in pressure situations throughout the tournament not to mention the odd moment of genuine quality when they needed it most. This triumph certainly won’t rank as the most brilliant in their illustrious history in the competition but it will still be rightly cherished in one half of the Spanish capital.

Their group stage campaign, with Rafa Benitez at the helm seems like an absolute eternity ago now but even though the Spaniard’s reign would be short-lived and memorable for mostly the wrong reasons, Real Madrid in Europe at least looked very much like a side that would again be serious contenders.

They took 4 points off PSG and won all their other games to top the group ahead of the French champions, who were certainly among a small elite group of clubs expected to seriously challenge deep into the latter stages of the tournament. Benitez won’t get much credit for what happened next but in Europe at least, the foundations had been laid for a campaign that saw Los Blancos reach the final without conceding a single goal at the Santiago Bernabeu.

An overlooked factor of their success has been that Real Madrid had kept 10 clean sheets in 12 matches going into the final. That would have been 11 were it not for a late breakdown in concentration when they were 4-0 up away to Shakhtar Donetsk but against their toughest opponents they were defensively excellent. In 6 games against PSG, Roma and Manchester City, they kept 6 clean sheets and in the final Atleti had limited genuine openings with Sergio Ramos, again a colossal figure at the heart of the defence.

Of course, their path to the final certainly could have been much more difficult. While city rivals Atleti had to see off Barcelona and Bayern, both of whom were favourites to win the competition going into their quarter-final and semi-final ties, Real Madrid got the pick of the draw in both rounds in the shape of Wolfsburg in the last eight and a bizarrely tentative Manchester City in the last four.

They were both ties they were expected to win and ultimately did but again there will be those that say they were fortunate. Their worst performance of the competition by some distance came in the quarter-final 1st Leg at Wolfsburg when they put in an inept showing at both ends of the pitch, losing 2-0 to put their continuation in the competition not to mention their head coach’s job firmly on the line.

However in Cristiano Ronaldo they found their salvation. Love him or loathe him, few could argue that he was anything but mesmeric in the 2nd leg against the Germans. The Bernabeu was rocking like it hadn’t done in years as a rejuvenated Real Madrid, one of perhaps just three sides in the competition with the sort of firepower required to turn a 2-0 1st Leg deficit around, roared into life. The Portuguese international as he so often has been over the years was the inspiration netting a blistering hat-trick to send Los Blancos into the last four.

Their best player showed up when they needed him most, something that didn’t happen with Barcelona or Bayern Munich this year and certainly contributed to their respective European exits albeit against stronger opposition.

If the quarter-final was more old-school Real Madrid in that they made life difficult for themselves only to ultimately outscore their opponents, the semi-final was anything but that. They controlled the tie almost from the first whistle to last against Manchester City without being at their very best at any point.

It was a measured approach, more Atletico Madrid than Real but it was mighty effective. Although their aggregate win was only by a 1-0 margin, City never really looked like scoring and although critics may argue they again got fortunate progressing via a Fernando own goal, had the English side somehow managed to net, you always sensed Real Madrid would have been able to move up a couple of gears if they had needed to.

In short it was the performance of a side that knows better than anyone what it takes to win the competition and one that may have finally learnt from some of the errors of previous years. There were few moments where Real Madrid really turned on the style against anyone other than the weakest teams in their group but they employed sensible game plans throughout and ultimately did just enough in every round.

Whether that’s the hallmark of champions or the fortunate is open to debate but few can argue that Real Madrid didn’t deserve their place in the final. It might not have been one of their most blistering European progressions but besides a bad night at the Volkswagen Arena, it was certainly one of their most efficient.

In the final itself Real Madrid did what Barca and Bayern had failed to do in the previous rounds and started the game very much on the front foot against Atleti. Zidane did what Luis Enrique and Pep Guardiola had failed to do until it was too late and got his tactics spot on from the off. Although Sergio Ramos’ goal was as scrappy as they come, not to mention offside, a 1-0 Real lead was certainly a fair reflection on a 1st Half where Los Blancos were the dominant force.

Real Madrid may have rode their luck again after the break as Antoine Griezmann’s penalty rattled against the underside of the crossbar and came out and even though a much more competitive Atleti levelled the game through Carrasco, there was a sense that Real Madrid were still looking marginally the more likely winners.

It was a performance of real grit and determination where they matched Atleti’s work-rate and one where Casemiro was a bigger star than Cristiano. Real Madrid again had just the better of the openings in extra-time and although clearly there is a large element of luck when it comes to a penalty shoot-out, the ability to hold your nerve is generally what determines the winner.

All of Real Madrid’s penalty takers did just that while Jan Oblak seemed to lose his head. His decision to revert from the traditional school of thought in such situations, which is to just dive one way and give yourself a good chance of making the save if you guess correct, made his opponent’s life considerably easier. We may never find out whether it was a carefully thought out tactic perhaps born out of his failure to save any penalties in Atleti’s last 16 shootout win over PSV or a rash spur of the moment decision. Either way it didn’t work and while goalkeepers aren’t expected to save penalties, they are expected to at least give themselves a chance, something he failed to do.

It was a heartbreaking finale for Los Colchoneros again, who for all they’ve achieved over the past few years, would have been deserving European champions. However solely on the balance of play over the 120 minutes, you couldn’t really say they would have been any more worthy a winner than Real Madrid were. It was a tight game, as it was always likely to be and predictably was settled by the finest of margins.

Of course there are a whole host of reasons why most of the millions watching around the world weren’t exactly doing somersaults when Real Madrid won the shootout. Even before the utterly embarrassing antics of Pepe or the egomania of an otherwise ineffective Ronaldo, those with no allegiance to either club were bound to side with Atleti, particularly after what happened in Lisbon two years ago.

Diego Simeone’s side have arguably been the best ‘team’ in Europe this season, certainly in the truest sense of the word and many felt this was finally going to be their time. However to begrudge Real Madrid the win for a combination of those reasons would be unfair. They may have rode their luck at times but it’s not like they are the first team to win the competition on penalties or in mildly controversial circumstances. You can look back on Manchester United in 2008 and certainly Chelsea in 2013 as more fortunate Champions League winners but once the dust settles few remember the minor details of a game and it’s only the name on the trophy that really matters.

And there is one name that appears on it several more times than any other club and that is Real Madrid C.F. There might not have been a Zidane wonder-goal to settle the final or the sort of pulsating counter-attacking football that saw them reach the 2014 showpiece. There was an almost refreshing air of logic to their approach this time in that they considered their own limitations, took every opponent on their merit and devised a different plan to beat them.

Without fail it ultimately worked and not only have they acquired European football’s biggest prize for the 11th time, they may even have stumbled upon the blueprint required to win more.

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