Real Madrid have just enough to beat Atletico, win the Champions League
MILAN, Italy -- The pre-match predictions had thrown up the familiar blueprint.
Atletico Madrid would retreat into their citadel, pulling up the drawbridge and venturing out only via the fleet-footed Antoine Griezmann and Fernando Torres on the counter or, perhaps, to launch the odd aerial attack.
And Real Madrid were tasked with figuring out whether to turn this into a war of attrition -- pushing on just far enough to ratchet up the pressure but without exposing their underbelly -- or unleashing the Galacticos to invent and create as they do best.
That was the script, but it went out the window after 15 minutes when Sergio Ramos broke the ice and changed the complexion of the match. The goal was straight out of the old Atletico playbook: A set piece with a bit of good fortune.
Toni Kroos' free kick was sweetly nudged on by Gareth Bale's man-bunned head and descended just in front of Jan Oblak, where Ramos' tippy toes were there to meet it just softly enough to scramble the ball past the goalkeeper.
Diego Simeone, on the Atletico bench, did one of those angry leaps with a half-turn, and rightly so. What we don't know is whether his rage was directed at Stefan Savic, who seemed to lose Ramos, or at referees' assistant Simon Beck, who kept his flag down when replays suggested Ramos was offside. Either way, the aforementioned Plan A -- assuming that was his Plan A -- was no longer an option for Simeone.
His opposite number Zinedine Zidane was more subdued when the Real side took the lead, merely nodding his head and breaking into a half-smile. He knew that Atletico could not stay in their shell, meaning the pitch would get bigger and space would open up for the free-wheeling gallops of Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Perhaps Zidane wondered whether Simeone had been oddly prescient Friday when, during the pre-match news conference, the Atletico boss described Casemiro as Real's most important player because he allowed them to play on the counter. If so, his clairvoyance looked set to turn against him.
Except that's when the game took the first of many odd turns. Atleti did emerge but Real played it cool; maybe too cool. When regaining possession, rather than unleashing the thoroughbreds, they attacked tentatively. Perhaps the idea was to try to control possession.
Or maybe it was the Simeone effect and the massed red-and-white ranks in the stadium's Curva Sud that pushed Atleti to snuff out every nascent Real counter. Whatever it was, the game became subdued as the first half wore on, coming to life only for a couple of Antoine Griezmann efforts; one tame, one errant.
During the half-time break, Simeone replaced Augusto Fernandez -- no fault of the player; the guy who was playing for Celta Vigo and thinking of a placid mid-table existence until January, put in a solid shift -- and threw on Yannick Carrasco while switching to a straight-forward 4-3-3.
Before it could have any effect though, Atleti had the equalizer on a plate. Griezmann's pass was intended for Fernando Torres, with his back to goal. El Nino may not be what he once was, but there's a bag of savvy in his locker these days. He sensed the onrushing bundle of brawn and vinegar otherwise known as Pepe and simply looked to shield the ball.
The Portuguese defender's big boot rashly caught Torres from behind, just above the ankle. It was a clear penalty and referee Mark Clattenburg pointed to the spot. Griezmann stepped up with the confidence of a Las Vegas card counter, but his shot rocketed against the bar.
Moments later came a potential turning point as Dani Carvajal bowed out to muscular problems and Zidane sent on Danilo. The Brazilian has had a rocky first season at the Bernabeu and it was about to get a heck of a lot bumpier against Carrasco, whose combination of strength, quickness and trickery channeled Luis Figo and would give Danilo fits until the final whistle.
It was as if the threat of Carrasco froze Real in their tracks and, during the next few minutes, Atleti went very close again. First Savic's awkward finish looped wide after a goalmouth scramble and then Saul hooked Carrasco's cross just wide of the post.
This was the moment where you expected Real's big stars to take over, but Ronaldo, who possibly was not fully fit, was muted. Things got worse for him after a nasty stomp on his right foot from Diego Godin, which prompted a torrent of "Fuera! Fuera!" to bellow out from the Curva Nord, home to the Real Madrid faithful.
Bale, meanwhile, was dangerous at first before succumbing to his old nemesis: weak calves. Thus, with one "B" and the "C" misfiring, Luka Modric turned to the other "B" 20 minutes from time. The Croatian midfielder orchestrated a brilliant fast break, unleashing Karim Benzema who was storming in from the right flank. But his violent finish crashed into Oblak's large frame and that was that.
Zidane felt he needed to do something and used up his two final substitutions in an effort to shepherd the game to safety. In the space of four minutes, out went Kroos and Benzema, and in came Isco and Lucas Vazquez. Moments later, Real had another match point as the ball bounced around the Atletico box, with both Ronaldo and Bale denied as they sought to make it 2-0.
And then came that old football truism: miss a chance at one end, get punished at the other. Atletico launched an attack and the ball fell to Gabi, whose delicate chip found Juanfran. The full-back's first-time cross found Carrasco, who had lost Danilo for the umpteenth time as he freed himself at the far post to turn the ball past Keylor Navas.
In celebration, the goalscorer galloped to kiss a woman standing on the sideline -- the consensus was that the lady in question was his girlfriend -- while Simeone clenched his fists and roared at the heavens. The Curva Sud turned into human confetti, with reds and whites bouncing uncontrollably in an unfettered explosion of joy.
Joy and confidence. The mind went back to the mega-banner unfurled before kickoff: Tus valores nos hacen creer: Your values make us believe. And believe Atletico did. If momentum exists, this was it, residing in the red-and-white end.
Most of Real's players trotted back for the kickoff with the demeanor of men who had put their winning lottery tickets through the washing machine. Ramos was the exception, ranting and shouting, as if to remind his teammates who they were and that Simeone did not have a monopoly on self-belief.
The match took another turn as it slipped into extra time. Now, it was about staving off fatigue, both mental and physical.
"It became a very tactical game, like a chess match at that point," Simeone said later. "Both teams were spent. It became very difficult."
Indeed, as often happens when you're running low on energy, the game got ragged and began to ebb and flow, with each team taking turns in the opposing half.
Carrasco continued to torment Danilo, and Modric tried to keep order but there was no longer an attacking outlet because Ronaldo was by now at a walking pace. Bale, too, was clearly suffering; the Welshman seemed to take up yoga positions both at the end of the 90 minutes and in the interval between the first and second extra-time period.
Atleti were also shattered. In these conditions, you simply try to maintain your concentration and avoid mistakes.
Both teams managed to do it, save for an ugly incident involving Pepe and Carrasco, when the Madrid defender seemed to put the Atletico midfielder into a figure-four leg lock and then acted as if he'd been whacked in the face. Clattenburg wasn't fooled by Pepe's playacting, though nor was he brave enough to show him the second yellow he probably deserved.
Penalties have their own drama. As Atletico huddled into a tight human ball around a crouched Simeone, Real Madrid were a blur of white shirts and the blue of their substitutes' bibs and assistants' jackets.
While Bale was prone on the pitch and got treatment, Ronaldo sat on a water cooler and stared in the distance. There's no right way to prepare for a shootout but, if you had to guess, it felt as if Atletico's moment had come.
And you would have been wrong.
The first eight penalties were flawless, including one from Griezmann, who obviously isn't the type to be affected by earlier mistakes.
But then Juanfran's penalty rebounded off the post, meaning to the spot strode Ronaldo with what felt like the opportunity of a lifetime: His chance to win the biggest prize in club football with the final kick of the game.
He said as much after the game, when he talked about "having had a vision" and convincing Zidane to let him take the fifth penalty.
No matter what happened in the previous 120 minutes, Ronaldo wasn't going to miss. And he didn't. He wheeled away celebrating a penalty, just as he did two years earlier when his goal padded an already unassailable lead. But this time, nobody could mock him for his reaction. Whatever injuries he was carrying, whatever fears were going through his mind, he had delivered.
Atletico bowed their heads again. For the third time in club history, they had lost a European Cup by the slimmest of margins. Simeone had his chance to recriminate post-match and reflect on bad breaks like the assistant's flag staying down on Ramos' goal and Griezmann's penalty caroming off the woodwork.
But he wasn't having any of it.
"The winner is always right," Simeone said. "We weren't good enough to win it on penalties. Justice? I don't believe in justice when it comes to football. There's only winning and we lost. The better team won. The better team always wins."
As for Zidane, he seemed in a daze, which is understandable. Fewer than 150 days ago he was the manager of Castilla in the Spanish third division. Now, he was champion of Europe; the first man to win the European Cup as a player, as an assistant and as a manager.
"[Carlo] Ancelotti told me that winning the European Cup as a manager is a feeling unlike any other and I would only experience it if it happened," he said. "Now I know what he was talking about. And, yes, I'm happy."
And then the slightest, sweetest of smiles crept across his face and you realized he was beaming inside. Zidane had encountered luck and adversity in the course of 120 minutes; he had made mistakes and found solutions.
He was a European Cup-winning manager.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.