Sometimes there is something to be said for simply having lots of good players. Nobody could claim this Real Madrid represent a romantic ideal. There is no philosophy that sustains them beyond that of being richer than their rivals. There remain significant doubts as to Zinedine Zidane’s qualities as a coach. And yet they have become the first team successfully to defend the European title in the Champions League era and have won three of the last four titles, taking their overall tally to 12.
Inevitably, Cristiano Ronaldo played a key role, scoring the opener and the third. He is the first player to score in three finals in the Champions League era and the second overall after Alfredo Di Stefano, who scored in five. He has adapted his game remarkably over the past couple of seasons as his pace has begun to desert him but he remains a lethal finisher, scoring ten goals in Real Madrid’s last five games in the competition.
For Juve this was a seventh defeat in nine finals. They played well in spells and may consider themselves a little unfortunate given Madrid’s first two goals were both deflected, but the fact is that after half-time they simply couldn’t live with the pace and relentlessness of Madrid. The Madrid that won the Champions League last season felt a little underwhelming, their run to the final relatively simple. But this time Madrid beat Napoli, Bayern Munich and Atletico before Juve. Nobody can say this is not deserved.
As expected, Gareth Bale, born just a few miles from the stadium, was left on the bench. He hasn’t played since 23 April because of a calf injury but returned to training last week. Zidane, though, preferred to retain Isco, operating behind Ronaldo and Karim Benzema in a diamond midfield. Toni Kroos had been clear during the week that he thinks Madrid are better balanced with the additional midfielder.
Bale eventually came on with 13 minutes remaining for Benzema.
There was a thought, though, that that rather played into the hands of Juve’s back three. With Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini across the back, Juve had an extra man there, plus Sami Khedira and Miralem Pjanic to pick up Isco. Their shape also allowed them to push Dani Alves forward (so the shape was arguably more a lopsided 4-2-3-1 as a lopsided 3-4-2-1) to engage with Marcelo as high up the pitch as possible.
As the role of the full-back has changed, the two Brazilians have emerged as two of the prime exponents of the new style. The Brazilian term for the position is “lateral” and that better describes how they interpret the role than the English “full-back”. They are wide players, and there is very little “back” about them. Both are essentially wing-backs, even if they’re playing as part of a back four rather than outside a three.
As it turned out, though, it was the other right-back, Dani Carvajal, who made a decisive impact once the game had finally started. UEFA’s obsession with a staged build-up reached new heights of absurdity.
Around two hours before the scheduled kick-off there was a decent atmosphere building, but it was then drowned by a buffoon with a microphone and the dread artificiality of “fantertainment”, made all the more oppressive by the fact the roof was closed. This was the first covered Champions League final, reportedly not for any concerns about the weather but because of the threat of drones.
The players’ warm-up was interrupted by the sprinklers being turned on because the final water had to be completed before the Black-Eyed Peas performed, and they ended up being shooed off to make way for soldiers laying an enormous blue sheet over the pitch and building a stage.
Inevitably, the game kicked off late. Quite why being the most important football match of the year isn’t enough, why it needs these adornments, is bewildering. After all, concerts don’t start with a quick game of five-a-side on stage.
Juve probably began marginally the brighter, with Pjanic drawing a fine low save out of Keylor Navas with a 20-yard volley. But 20 minutes in, a sweeping move ended with Ronaldo exchanging passes with Carvajal and tucking a low shot past Gianluigi Buffon with the aid of a deflection off the toe of Bonucci.
Within seven minutes Juve were level. Madrid’s goal had been elegant and ruthless; Juve’s was stunning. Pjanic swept a long ball to the left from where Alex Sandro knocked it back into the middle for Higuain, who headed back to Mario Mandzukic. He flicked the ball up with his chest and then sent a brilliant looping overhead beyond the dive of Navas and into the top corner.
Juve seemed dominant from then until half-time, but Madrid were far more aggressive after the break, playing with a bite that led to two yellow cards within the first quarter-hour of the second half. It also brought a second goal, Casemiro’s ferocious strike from 35 yards flicking off Khedira’s heel and spinning between Buffon’s hand and the post.
Three minutes later, Ronaldo darted across the near post to meet Luka Modric’s low cross and the game was done.
A ridiculous second yellow card for the substitute Juan Cuadrado for brushing past Sergio Ramos made absolutely sure there would be no comeback. Marco Asensio added a late fourth.
Madrid are not a side who will be hailed as pioneers. They do not embody a style. But they are the best side in Europe.