Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos billed Saturday’s Champions League final in Cardiff as a “date with history” and, following Madrid’s 4-1 win over Juventus, the achievement will certainly be etched into the history of European club football.
Real’s victory meant they became the first team to defend the title in the 25-year UEFA Champions League era. An astonishing achievement when you consider the teams from that quarter century period that were unable to do so. Van Gaal’s youthful Ajax of the mid-90s, Kaka’s formidable AC Milan, two Barcelona teams – one led by the scintillating magic of Ronaldinho and the other by the sheer brilliance of Lionel Messi – and don’t forget Jupp Heynckes all-conquering treble-winning Bayern Munich.
Talent galore and we haven’t even considered previous incarnations of Real Madrid yet. Teams littered with legends and galacticos – Raul, Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos to name a few. But first among equals himself – Zinedine Zidane.
So why is all this relevant? Well because until recently the quality of Real Madrid and their manager have been questioned. Could Zidane plan tactically? Could the team pull together to form more than their parts?
Saturday’s culmination of a first league and European Cup double for Real in over 50 years surely puts these quandaries to bed.
Juventus have truly been a fantastic team this year. The best defensive unit in Europe without question and a multi-pronged creative attack led by Paulo Dybala. The only worthy contender to contest the final against Real and in truth they were put to the sword.
The Italian champions started brightly before eventually falling behind. Real swept forward at lightning pace, on the edge of the box Cristiano Ronaldo fed Dani Carvajal who played it back to the Portuguese who swept the ball home to make it 1-0. Juve are a resilient bunch though and Mario Mandzukic summoned the craft of a renaissance master to control a ball from Gonzalo Higuain and send an overhead volley perfectly into the only spot Keylor Navas couldn’t cover. It was a goal of excellence, perhaps the best ever in a European final. All the while the scorer of another contender – Mr Zidane himself with his sumptuous 2002 effort at Hampden – watched on.
Juve perhaps had the best of the first half but suffered the misfortune of going behind to a deflected Casemiro effort that just eluded the luckless Gigi Buffon at the far post. Then, in the blink of an eye, it was 3-1. Luka Modric crossing for Ronaldo to tap home. Marco Asensio added a fourth in the 90th minute but the writing had been on the wall for some time.
Juventus weren’t helped by substitute Juan Cuadrado’s 84th minute red card. In fairness (to Cuadrado) it was orchestrated unfairness. Sergio Ramos – despite having the trophy in the bag – somehow feeling the need to cheat to get an opponent sent off. In a word – pathetic. The stain on an otherwise enthralling final.
So Zidane proved his credentials. Two European Cups in less than two years as a manager. His Real nullified the nous of Juventus. Higuain never really got into the game and his attacking colleagues showed flashes of their capabilities but couldn’t assert themselves thanks to a resolute and organised Real defence overseen by the commanding Toni Kroos. Zizou also managed to find a way past the fabled other BBC. Bonucci, Barzagli and Chiellini. The usually resolute Juve seemed to sense the jig was up after Casemiro’s goal and definitely after Ronaldo’s second. They conceded more goals in this game then they had in all their previous Champions League games this season combined.
So Cardiff witnessed the 600th goal of Cristiano Ronaldo’s career – another outlandish stat to throw into the game of Ronaldo vs. Messi top trumps. The headline though is Real are the first team to win two consecutive Champions League titles. The team might not be regarded with the affection of previous winners but perhaps the passing of time and our love for nostalgia will soften current cynicism.