Real get better of Madrid's emotional Champions League final
Carlo Ancelotti has been to seven European Cup finals in the past 30 years: three as a player, four as a manager, most as the clear-cut pregame favourite.
He brushed off questions about this ahead of the game ("It's not as if it's particularly difficult to motivate players in a game like this," he said Friday. "Both teams will do their best to attack and win.") but the tell-tale eyebrow said otherwise.
He had to take the game to Atletico Madrid. Circumstances dictated as much. He was brought in to play attacking football, to get the expensive moving parts to work in unison in a way they had done only intermittently under his predecessor. Against Bayern in the semifinal, he could absorb the tiki-taka and unleash the the pricey thoroughbreds on the counter. Not here. Not against Diego Simeone.
A war of attrition would favor Atleti. He knew that. They killed you on set-pieces. They had momentum on their side. They were emotionally and mentally tougher. That Diego Costa was a menace and, at least according to reports, the horse placenta had done its thing. Thibaut Courtois behind a settled back four was a scary proposition. And, should it go to penalties... well, he didn't feel great about it.
So the plan was to attack, even if it meant conceding your underbelly to what Atleti did best: counter. To do that, he needed Karim Benzema -- although clearly not fully fit -- wedged in between Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo. Starting him had been a tough decision, one he only made on the day of the game, after a fitness test.
The other big decision was how to replace the suspended Xabi Alonso. (Or, rather, who ought to play in his place: in this Madrid side, there is no replacement.) He chose Sami Khedira, despite the fact that injury had limited him to just 117 minutes for Real Madrid in the past six months, instead of Asier Illarramendi. In games like this, Ancelotti will often pick experience over youth.
He got his break early, when Diego Costa came off after just nine minutes. Atletico's counter just got a whole lot less terrifying.
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Problem was, his team wasn't particularly threatening either. Ronaldo was a passenger, Bale a tiny bit more than that (apart from one run that he ended by mis-hitting the finish). Benzema lumbered between Diego Godin and Miranda. Further back, there were problems, too. Khedira was clearly out of his depth in the Xabi Alonso role, turning the ball over and getting caught out of position to the point that Luka Modric and Angel Di Maria, Madrid's thrusters in Ancelotti's setup, were too often called to double back and help out.
Still, as long as Atletico didn't score, it was OK. Sooner or later the slumbering giants would wake. And he still had Alvaro Morata and Isco to call upon in the second half. Instead, tragedy struck when Iker Casillas got caught in no-man's land and Khedira got stuck in a tar pit or whatever that was that prevented him from challenging Godin's header.
Ancelotti doesn't like to talk about it, but he's superstitious. And he knows streaks come to an end. Streaks like Casillas' against Atletico, which, before Saturday stood at 20 wins, six draws and no defeats. This wasn't the time for this to end... was it?
Atleti went into the break one-nil up. The changes were inevitable and they came early in the second half. Marcelo for the more defensive Fabio Coentrao, Isco for the over-matched Khedira. Benzema stuck around a bit longer -- Ancelotti had to wait before burning his third substitution -- but he too made way for Morata.
Madrid's attacking threat grew, albeit slowly. There were more half-chances than real chances, but the good news was that Atleti's counterattack was gone. David Villa had been near heroic, working his rear end off, but at his age and in his condition he was destined to flag. Adrian was equally limited and Raul Garcia was coming to terms with the harsh reality that he's not a 90-minute player -- especially not in a game like this.
And yet as the minutes ticked away, Atletico hung on and you wonder if Ancelotti's faith began to waver. The goal would come. It had to. Or did it? You could sense Atleti slowly crumbling under Real's blows, you just weren't sure they could beat the clock and score before referee Bjorn Kuipers' final whistle.
Then came that corner and that picture-perfect header from Sergio Ramos. With Casillas grounded by his error (not physically, but mentally) and Xabi Alonso watching from the stands, it was the centre-back who stepped up. Earlier, he had run the length of the pitch to get in Raul Garcia's face after a nasty tackle on Di Maria. It got him a booking of the kind some might say was unnecessary but one that Ancelotti probably did not mind. It sent a message that they were not going to be pushed around and they would do everything in their power to wreck Atleti's fairy tale.
By the time extra time rolled around, the momentum had swung. Whatever had gone wrong in the first 89 minutes, fate -- and Sergio Ramos -- had offered up a second chance. But now the challenge was a different one. How to muster the energy to keep going? This is where Atleti paid a price for their earlier intensity (not that they can -- or should -- play any other way) and where Real's athleticism made the difference.
Di Maria, the man of the match, part Energizer bunny, part Foucault's perpetual motion machine, seized the ball on the left and shot forward as if it was the first minute of the game. A little shimmy and a vicious finish prompted a superb save from Courtois. The ball deflected into the air, though, hanging there long enough for Bale to nod it home.
Marcelo's third was the proverbial nail in the coffin, and it was at this point that Diego Simeone made the long walk towards the Atleti fans. The game was effectively over. He applauded them for the kind of unconditional love that made this magical 2013-14 campaign possible.
Cristiano Ronaldo won and converted a penalty to make it 4-1 but it was irrelevant, just like -- surprisingly -- his contribution on the night. He could have spared the shirt-removal and over-the-top celebration. Then again, on a night like this, you feel like giving him a pass. After all, it was in this very stadium, at this very end, that Greece had broken Portuguese hearts in the European Championship final a decade earlier. This was an emotional release after the tears of that night.
Ten isn't just a round number, it's the coronation of a long journey for Florentino Perez, the architect of the original Galacticos and driver of the epic spending of the past decade. Ancelotti, with his third trophy as a manager, moves alongside Bob Paisley as the most successful European Cup boss ever.
The challenge now is to build on this. The obsession is gone, now it's about continuing the journey towards creating and fine-tuning an actual team on the pitch. Off the pitch, Ancelotti has already done the trick. The deep, painful divisions of last season are gone. And his players let him know as much during the post-game press conference, half a dozen of them storming in to serenade their boss.
"Happiness for me is giving happiness to those who follow us every day," he said. "If you're lucky enough to do that, you're privileged."
And he is. Just like Real Madrid. And their supporters. And those neutrals who watched a final that started slowly before giving us a dramatic, emotional ending.