A Decima 12 years in the making
There was no greater sign of the magnitude of La Decima than Real Madrid president Florentino Perez leaning across the monarchs of Spain and the current prime minister to clasp hands with former premier Jose Maria Aznar -- the architects of two Spanish institutions basking in the glow of triumph, however arduous the road to the final goal had been.
For twelve years, Real Madrid have been obsessed with the quest for their 10th European triumph. Within the club, the term is generally toned down to "motivation" or some such, but the truth is that the entire focus of Perez's two terms as Real president has been the desire to reassert Real's historical status as a continental heavyweight. Several also-ran campaigns under Jose Mourinho brought the club to the cusp. The appointment of Carlo Ancelotti finally nudged Real over the finish line. The Italian on Saturday became only the second manager after Bob Paisley to get his hands on Old Big Ears three times, as he oversaw a 4-1 victory at the expense of Real's city rivals Atletico. That he did so with the crushing weight of expectation as an extra burden is doubly impressive.
Atletico did not have any such hindrance going into the final. Unlikely league winners for the first time since 1996, just getting to the Champions League final was already a yard-and-a-half more than anybody reasonably expected at the start of the season. Ending a two-horse hegemony domestically was deserved and admirable. But the wear and tear of a season spent defying the gods ultimately cost Atletico the chance to ascend Olympus.
Diego Simeone rightly gambled on his namesake, Spain striker Diego Costa, as he had at Barcelona a week ago in the Liga denouement. As at Camp Nou, Costa didn't last more than 10 minutes. Ancelotti, meanwhile, defied forecasts and consigned Asier Illarramendi to the bench in favour of Germany international Sami Khedira. In the absence of the suspended Xabi Alonso, the Real coach opted for experience. Without the guiding hand of the Basque, Real are a rudderless ship. It wasn't until he returned from injury in November that the team started to display any kind of cohesion, and he was again sorely missed in Lisbon as Atletico largely controlled the opening 45 minutes.
Raul Garcia was drafted into the right of midfield to compensate for Arda Turan's injury and the limping Navarran did what he does best from the outset: he might have bagged a fair few goals this season, but Garcia is predominantly muscle. A few juicy challenges went unpunished by match referee Bjorn Kuipers, but Garcia duly incurred a caution for a filthy tackle on Angel Di Maria, who had wriggled through Atletico's staunch back line. It was to a recurring theme as a congested midfield numbed both sides' attacking impetus in the first half. Sergio Ramos was closer to troubling Iker Casillas with a wild spooned clearance than any of Atletico's players had been by the half-hour mark, and Thibaut Courtois was practically a spectator. Cristiano Ronaldo at least warmed the Belgian's hands with a free-kick, but the Ballon d'Or winner was completely anonymous in the first half, while his BBC colleagues were practically off-air.
As befitted a city derby final, there was plenty of spiteful indulgence, not least between Atletico captain Gabi and Fabio Coentrao. A less lenient official might have reduced the game to a whistle-stop tour, but fortunately the handbags were dismissed as precisely that. Real were always going to struggle to find a way through Atletico's massed defensive ranks, and Simeone's side were ultimately seeking a breakthrough from a set piece without giving too much away at the other end. The circumstances of Atletico's goal could not have been more bizarre. A Gabi corner was lofted into the area and Casillas went to claim it, only to watch the ball loop over his head and over the line -- just -- from a weak Diego Godin header. 1-0, and cue a period of sustained pressure at the end of the half as Atletico sought to consolidate their good fortune.
Surprisingly, Ancelotti made no changes at halftime, despite his forward line being easily contained and Atletico chasing down and picking up every loose ball in midfield. Gareth Bale was pinned down as Real operated a nominal 4-2-2 system and Ronaldo and Karim Benzema were completely isolated.
Di Maria tried to take matters into his own hands -- and why not after his season? -- and a typically incisive run drew a foul from Miranda, which subsequently drew the first meaningful intervention from Courtois as Ronaldo's free-kick arched off the wall towards the top corner.
Real pressed for the equaliser throughout the second half as Atletico reverted to a rearguard action, but neither Bale nor Ronaldo could find the target from air or ground assault. The Welshman was clear through three times in the 90 but failed to test Courtois once.
On the hour mark, Ancelotti withdrew Khedira and Fabio Contrao for Isco and Marcelo, adding some much-needed attacking impetus and a few fresh ideas. Isco pulled down a Dani Carvajal cross deliciously but found Godin in his way as the clock wound down. Real continued to apply pressure in the final 15 minutes and were rewarded when Ramos headed home from a corner in the third minute of stoppage time, earning the Sevillan a full-blooded kiss from an extremely relieved Casillas.
What had appeared to be the perfect game plan by Atletico in the final game of a grueling season then unraveled like Alonso's clothing campaign for a famous Spanish department store; in spectacular and slightly stilted fashion.
Atletico's reserves were well and truly spent; this was a battle designed to last 90 minutes, not 120. With all substitutions made and Juanfran limping about the field, Simeone's side simply could not cope with a reinvigorated Real. Ancelotti's substitutions have been the subject of negative scrutiny in his first season, but in Lisbon he got it spot on. The drive of Isco and Marcelo, and the youthful exuberance of Alvaro Morata, who replaced Benzema, were the tipping point. Atletico held out for the first 15 minutes of extra time but collapsed in the second period. Bale rose to head home for 2-1, and Marcelo added the third when half of Atletico's players were still upfield, unable to find further lung-bursting runs for the cause. Ronaldo added a fourth from the penalty spot for his 17th of the tournament.
Atletico's frustration boiled over in the shape of Simeone, who was sent off late on for an ugly confrontation with Raphael Varane; an unfortunate end to a season in which the Argentinean has won nothing but plaudits.
For Perez, it was the culmination of a long-held dream; La Decima may have eluded him in his first spell at the Real helm but finally the European Cup will reside again in the Bernabeu's ostentatious trophy room. The question for Perez and Real now is whether it will be another decade until the 11th -- Undecimo doesn't have quite the same ring -- will be added. No side has successfully defended the European crown since Milan in 1990. With the same side largely intact next year, and possible illustrious additions to come, Real could feasibly do it.
Perez is a politician as much as a football club president, and as such he will already be seeking to capitalise on the leverage of La Decima. Elections in 2015 may prove uncomfortable for Aznar and his Popular Party, but Perez won another term in the same instant his side were deservedly lifting the long-awaited trophy in Lisbon.