Real Madrid look to confirm dynasty status with Juve standing in their way
CARDIFF, Wales -- Dynasties are cyclical. Right up until the 1990s, Real Madrid prided themselves on having won more European Cups (six) than any other club. While it is true, their rivals could always snort and cruelly point out that all of that happened "in black and white" -- meaning it was a long time ago, belonging to the age of sepia-tone newsreels. Indeed, 32 years passed between 1966 and 1998 when the club appeared in just one final (1981), which they lost.
But Real Madrid won it three times in the five years between 1998 and 2002. On Saturday, they can make it three in four years, becoming the first back-to-back European champions since Arrigo Sacchi's legendary Milan side in 1990.
It would be their sixth European crown in the past 19 years, definitely burying those "won it in black and white" jibes. It would mean they will have won it as many times as the clubs who rank second (Milan with seven) and third (take your pick of Bayern, Barcelona and Liverpool each of whom have five) ... combined.
This won't just be confirmation of their dynasty, it will be vindication of a certain style of doing business. It's a combination of massive spending power -- three of the six most expensive players of all time are in the Real Madrid squad -- and a crystal-clear brand identity that gets maximized and monetized in every market on the planet.
They're not the only super club playing the global commercial juggernaut game, they just do it better than most.
Standing in their way are a Juventus side who, when it comes to European competition, are playing catch-up, certainly relative to their domestic dominance, which was reaffirmed again last month when they won their sixth straight Serie A title. This will be Juve's ninth European Cup final -- only Real Madrid, Milan and Bayern Munich have played more -- yet they've won just two. One came on one of football's darkest days, after the 1985 Heysel tragedy that saw 39 supporters die, and the other happened on penalties. Just as Real Madrid have won more finals than anyone, Juventus have lost more than anyone.
It's not hard to see why a clean, convincing win would mean so much to Italy's most pedigreed and patrician club.
On the pitch, at first glance, there's a clear and convenient theme of attack vs. defense, punctuated by the fact that each has its own version of the "BBC". (Leo) Bonucci, (Andrea) Barzagli and (Giorgio) Chiellini head up a Juve defense that conceded just three goals in the tournament this year. And (Gareth) Bale, (Karim) Benzema and Cristiano (Ronaldo) lead a Real Madrid attack that scored 32 times in 12 games thus far.
That's one narrative, and it feeds into the old trope of the expansive, intoxicating Spanish side against the safety-first, conservative Italian team. But, in fact, there is much more here than meets the eye. Real Madrid can beat you many ways, but they are particularly devastating on set pieces and on the counterattack, two tools typical of humbler sides. In Casemiro, who became a fixture after manager Zinedine Zidane took over 18 months ago, they have a genuine no-frills midfield enforcer.
Meanwhile, Juventus went to another level when coach Max Allegri introduced his "5-star" scheme in midseason, essentially squeezing all his more gifted attacking players into the lineup at the same time. Critics said it would unbalance the team, but Allegri believed Juventus needed an additional dimension when pitted against Europe's elite.
In fact, one of the common threads for Real and Juve is humility. Neither team could get away with such attacking firepower if not for the self-sacrifice of stars donning their hard hats and turning distinctly blue-collar. Thus Real Madrid's Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, two of the finest attacking midfielders in the world, scramble and graft when not in possession, while a centre-forward like Benzema runs himself into the ground to create space. On the Juve end, guys such as Mario Mandzukic, Paulo Dybala and Miralem Pjanic know they have to put in the grunt work if the 5-star is going to be viable.
The parallels don't end there. Both managers were attacking midfielders who were greeted by skepticism when they were appointed. Both have confounded the critics.
Zidane, a resident legend going back to his playing days, was seen as an introverted yes-man who had shown little interest in management. Yet nobody in the history of the club has been more successful in his first 18 months at the helm than Zidane.
Allegri was depicted as too much of a lightweight when he replaced a drill sergeant like Antonio Conte in the summer of 2014. In three seasons, he has won six out of six domestic trophies while making two trips to the Champions League final.
There's the delicious thicket of subplots, too. Zidane himself spent five seasons at Juventus as a player before leaving for Madrid in a world-record deal that stood for eight years, an eternity in football. His fitness coach, Antonio Pintus, Turin-born and bred, was at Juve for six years in the 1990s. Both were there in Amsterdam on May 20, 1998, when Juventus were defeated in the Champions League final by none other than Real Madrid, when they won their first European Cup "in color."
Dani Alves, long Real Madrid's nemesis and a three-time Champions League winner at Barcelona, is now driving the flank at Juventus. Where, incidentally, he'll come up against his Brazil teammate and, in some ways, photo-negative, Madrid's left-back Marcelo.
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Then there's Gonzalo Higuain. Juventus took a page out of the Madrid playbook when they signed him last summer for some $100 million, making him the fourth-most expensive player ever. Higuain spent seven seasons at Real Madrid during which he won three league titles and scored 121 goals -- not a bad result given he often shared playing time with Benzema -- before the desire to be a regular week-in, week-out player prompted him to move to Napoli. Downing his old club on the biggest stage of all would be especially sweet.
Sami Khedira is the glue that holds Juve together tactically and is, arguably, their most essential player. He spent five injury-slowed years at Real Madrid before leaving as a free agent in 2015. And, of course, Alvaro Morata spent two seasons at Juve, where he was instrumental in their run to the 2015 Champions League final, before returning to Madrid as a prolific super-sub last summer.
All of this will play out in Wales, land of dragons and Celtic lore, and specifically at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, some three miles from where Bale was born. It won't be a fairy tale -- in this increasingly polarized and globalized sport, it's all about the blue-bloods and the mega-rich -- but it will likely be epic as giants square off for their place in history. Perhaps a place in Welsh mythology, too.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.