This, perhaps, is modern football. In recent years, the Champions League has been dominated by the psychodrama of Barcelona and the glorious fulfilment of a philosophy laid down four decades ago. As Real Madrid won an 11th Champions League/European Cup, four more than their nearest challengers, AC Milan, it felt like proof that if wealthy teams hang around for long enough, titles will eventually come their way.
That’s perhaps a little unfair on a side that has shown remarkable consistency in recent years, reaching six successive semi-finals, and those who demand clubs represent an ideal can hardly complain given Madrid’s success has always been based around buying the best, but equally it would be absurd to claim that a team that has won only one league title in the past eight years has somehow defined the era.
Perhaps under Zinedine Zidane, who has only had 27 games in charge of Real Madrid, this success will stand as the start of a genuine golden era, but it was not in any sense a consecration. This remains a collection of great players rather than a great team, something highlighted as Atletico came back into the game early in the second half.
Nor, you suspect, will history rank this Champions League particularly highly among Madrid’s other successes. The draw was too straightforward and, aside from the comeback against Wolfsburg in the quarter-final, there was never any real sense of jeopardy. It seemed the sense of anti-climax may continue in the final as Atletico struggled to respond to Sergio Ramos giving Madrid the lead on the quarter-hour.
The second half was a different matter, Antoine Griezmann missing a penalty before the substitute Yannick Carrasco levelled with 11 minutes remaining. It went to a penalty shoot-out, and when Juanfran hit the post, it was left to Cristiano Ronaldo to thump in the winning kick.
There had been an odd laxity to Atletico from the off, something that had Diego Simeone even more animated in his technical area than he usually is. Within the first 10 minutes, Jan Oblak had made a remarkable reflex block to keep out a Casemiro effort as he met a Gareth Bale free-kick four yards out, while Toni Kroos had a shot deflected just wide. The goal that had been threatened duly arrived on the quarter-hour, Bale flicking on a Kroos free-kick to Sergio Ramos, who was just offside, to bundle over the line from close range.
Bale was excellent, revelling in the surprising space in midfield, looking quicker and stronger than anybody else on the field. Cristiano Ronaldo was comparatively subdued, giving credence to the suggestion that he isn’t fully fit. By extra-time he was clearly struggling, raising questions as to why Zidane had used all three substitutes before then.
Simeone had singled out Casemiro for praise before the game, noting how he makes Madrid a much better counter-attacking side and, slightly surprisingly, Madrid switched to that strategy having taken the lead.
Atletico controlled possession in the final minutes of the first half but with Fernando Torres having an off day, that spell of control yielded only a couple of speculative efforts from Griezmann.
Simeone sent his players out early for the start of the second half, presumably after a rollocking, and within a minute they had a penalty, Pepe recklessly lunging in and kneeing Torres in the calf. Griezmann’s penalty, though, came back off the crossbar. Savic jabbed an effort just wide as Madrid struggled to clear a corner after 55 minutes but, once that chance had passed, Madrid seemed comfortable.
Only a fine save from Oblak in a one-on-one against Karim Benzema and Stefan Savic’s clearance off the line from Bale, the game would have been settled.
But then Koke opened Madrid up with a moment of superb improvisation, dinking a ball down the right for Juanfran, whose volleyed cross was driven in by Yannick Carrasco. But Atletico couldn’t finish off a tiring side in extra-time.
And so Zidane became the seventh man to win competition as both a player and a coach. The task for him now is to ensure that this final does not become a one off but is the springboard to something more sustained.
real: Navas, Carvajal (Danilo 52), Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo, Modric, Casemiro, Kroos (Isco 72), Bale, Benzema (Lucas 77), Ronaldo. Subs not used: Casilla, Nacho, Rodriguez, Jese.
atletico: Oblak, Juanfran, Savic, Godin, Filipe Luis (Lucas Hernandez 109), Saul, Gabi, Fernandez (Carrasco 45), Koke (Thomas Partey 116), Griezmann, Fernando Torres. Subs not used: Moya, Tiago, Correa, Gimenez.
REFEREE: Mark Clattenburg (England)