Real Madrid strength too much for Juventus, makes European Cup history
CARDIFF, Wales -- Yes, it's a dynasty. The first back-to-back European champions for 27 years. Three titles in four seasons. It may not feel like one in the way that Pep Guardiola's Barcelona was or the Ajax sides of the early 1970s were, because there isn't a domineering tactical style or a box office figure at the helm or even a blueprint to follow.
But that's what it is.
Nine of the 14 Real Madrid players who dropped Juventus 4-1 to win the club's 12th European Cup were there in 2013-14. So, too, was Zinedine Zidane, albeit as an assistant to Carlo Ancelotti then. If there is a theme to this, it's one of quality and simplicity, of great footballers working for and with each other, of egos being stowed for a common goal.
Juventus, meanwhile, limp away heartbroken for the seventh time in nine European Cup finals. But maybe this one hurts less. They conceded more goals in 90 minutes against Madrid than in 1,080 preceding minutes of Champions League action. They were outclassed by an opponent with another level and, perhaps even one after that. Game planning, hard work and scheme will get you only so far.
"In football, there are absolute values," Juve boss Max Allegri said after the game. "And when those values emerge, if your opponent has more quality than you, then he's better. There's only so much you can do."
An hour before kickoff in Cardiff, the team sheets revealed that hometown hero Gareth Bale, who had last played 41 days ago, was on the bench for Madrid. Zidane evidently doesn't do sentimentality, not with a European Cup at stake.
That Pepe, Lucas Vazquez and James Rodriguez were in the stands was maybe not a surprise, but it did provide a forceful reminder of how polarized and top-heavy today's super clubs really are. We're talking about the hero of the Portugal team, who won the European Championship less than 11 months ago, a Spanish international who had appeared in seven of Real's past eight games and the sixth-most-expensive player in history.
That's how deep and stacked Real Madrid are.
The closed Millennium Stadium roof sealed in the din, both from the Black Eyed Peas' prematch show and Andrea Bocelli's rendition of the UEFA Champions League anthem (I can confirm the lyrics sound even more inane in Italian). When the fans were roused, the acoustics became both tinny and uneasy, at once both distant and close.
The game began as if on fast-forward, with none of the poking and prodding and getting-to-know-you we sometimes see in finals. Juventus' Gonzalo Higuain slithered into space, beat two opponents and fired from the edge of the box; Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas spilled, but recovered.
Real were coming to terms with what was, essentially, Juventus' asymmetrical formation. Andrea Barzagli was a center-back playing right-back, assigned to slow down Ronaldo's runs and provide a meaty aerial challenge at the far post. That meant Dani Alves had the whole flank to himself against his Brazil teammate Marcelo.
On the opposite side, Alex Sandro and Mario Mandzukic were overloaded against Madrid right-back Dani Carvajal. With Isco dropping off to join Luka Modric and Toni Kroos in midfield, it felt at times as if Juve were happy to concede the middle of the park, knowing they could cause problems wide. But cover one base and the other is free.
Madrid's trio of attacking midfielders -- with only Miralem Pjanic and Sami Khedira to contain them -- found opportunities. And, after 20 minutes, Kroos' rumbling, left-to-center run culminated in the ball arriving at the feet of Ronaldo, who had wisely realized it was best if he steered clear of Barzagli. A layoff to Carvajal in the right-wing position was followed by a shimmy inside to find space and, having received a return pass, Gigi Buffon was beaten.
Juventus were unruffled. Seven minutes later, they equalized in the most spectacular fashion. After turning the screws in the final third, they trapped Madrid deep. And when the ball came to Higuain, he flicked it square to Mandzukic with his back to goal. The big man cushioned it on his chest and unleashed a long-range overhead kick with power and topspin to send it over Navas' head and into the far corner.
But when Madrid came slingshotting out of the block in the second half, it was Juventus who crumbled, perhaps retreating and retrenching too far, perhaps simply blinded by what was on display.
Ronaldo failed to connect at the far post on a brilliant Marcelo intuition, but, moments later, Casemiro -- of all people -- unleashed a vicious right-footed wallop that deflected off the leaping Khedira and eluded Buffon. The hard-hatted Madrid midfield foot soldier was swallowed up in celebration by the very generals he serves so humbly.
Barely three minutes passed before the TKO. Modric, the Energizer Bunny, beat Alex Sandro at the byline and crossed for Ronaldo, who lost Bonucci at the near post and turned it past Buffon. It was his 12th goal of this Champions League season, and it also reopened that existential debate about his goal scoring.
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL: REAL MADRID 4-1 JUVENTUS
- Report | Ronaldo hits 600th career goal | Bale's joy
- Marcotti: Real show their greatness | History made in Cardiff
- WATCH: Ronaldo's brace (U.S.) | UCL sights & sounds (U.S.)
- Play of the Day: Mandzukic's golazo | WATCH: Ronaldo heroic
- Ogden: Ronaldo comes full circle | Jones: Buffon's woe
- WATCH: Ramos' son fits in the cup | Real lift the trophy
- Buffon: It all went wrong | Ratings: Real Madrid
What's better? His finishing or his ability to teleport into unguarded space? Suffice to say that, in a game in which Madrid needed a center-forward -- not because Karim Benzema was subpar, but because he was busy dragging Juve's defence into places they did not want to be -- that's exactly what he turned into: one of those poachers who doesn't appear often but materializes when it counts most.
"What are you going to do?" Allegri said of Ronaldo. "He looks like he's napping all game, and then he pops up and destroys you."
Call it Cristiano 2.0.
Allegri looked to the options on his bench and threw on what he could muster: the warrior Claudio Marchisio, the quicksilver Juan Cuadrado and, ahem, the holding midfielder Mario Lemina. When all your attacking options are in your starting XI, this is what you have left in reserve. Allegri looked like the kid who had spent his money on candy on the way to school. It was now lunchtime and he was famished.
Effectively, the game was over. There was only enough time for Bale to make his cameo appearance, for Sergio Ramos to throw himself to the ground and get Cuadrado sent off after a limp shove and for substitute Marco Asensio to score a fourth, set up by the immense Marcelo.
A word on Ramos: Gestures like this may be a side effect of a win-at-all-costs mentality, and referee Felix Brych and his crew ought to have handled it better. But when you're 3-1 up with seven minutes to go, is this what you want to be doing?
Questions for another time. Real Madrid had won in the most emphatic way. And deservedly so. When you have more quality and that quality has means to an end -- making the whole bigger than the sum of its parts, rather than celebrating the individual -- you will usually win.
Juventus can reflect on the deflection for the second Madrid goal -- "Pjanic's shot gets deflected away and Casemiro's shot gets deflected towards the goal ... that's football," Allegri said -- and the lapse that turned a tight 1-1 encounter into a knockout in the space of 180 seconds. On another night, in another place, maybe things end differently.
But only if they muster two halves of quality football. And that is something the purple-shirted dragons of Madrid stopped them from doing after the break, when they breathed enough fire to light up 12 galaxies, one for each European Cup soon to be displayed in the bowels of the Bernabeu.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.