Matthew Line reports on Real Madrid’s penalty shoot-out win in the Champions League Final:
The Champions League Final is the climax of every football season. The biggest and brightest stage for the best of the best to battle it out for European club football’s greatest prize. The spectacular San Siro stadium was a worthy arena for the occasion. This game was so important that Rio Ferdinand wore a tuxedo while fulfilling his pundit duties for BT! Or maybe Rio has a side gig as a waiter, or perhaps he was auditioning to be the next James Bond?
The silky skills of Real Madrid’s superstars lined up against the attritional Athletico Madrid. Real’s first eleven cost over £300m while Athletico’s was assembled for less than £100m. It was no surprise, therefore, that Zidane and Simeone had very different strategies for the final. Zidane opted to attack while Simeone sought containment.
Real began the first half strongly, surging forward, but without posing any real threat. As expected, Athletico were well organised defensively and made their presence felt with a series of physical challenges. These included Gabi fouling Bale on the edge of the box. Bale curled in the free kick which spun sweetly into the penalty area and Real seemed certain to score, but Athletico’s keeper, Oblak, somehow managed to keep out the ball with a fine reaction save blocking instinctively with his leg.
Carvajal tried to show that Real can be tough too with a flying challenge that scythed down Griezmann and earned him the game’s first yellow card.
After initially chasing Real, Athletico seemed content to let their opponent have most of the possession. Real had 52% of the possession in the first 45 minutes.
Juanfran brought down Bale about three quarters of the way up the field. Kroos floated in the free kick, which was touched on by Bale’s ridiculous barnet. Chaos ensued in Athletico’s defence. Sergio Ramos took advantage and with the slightest of touches guided the ball over the line from close range.
Simeone’s strategy had presumably been to press Real, stop them from playing and then nick a goal to win it. This plan went out of the window when they fell behind with less than 20 minutes gone. Athletico seemed lost. They afforded Real time and space to play, but Real failed to increase their advantage. Athletico struggled to create much going forward and were largely limited to hit and hope shots from outside the box. Their best chance came from a through ball to Griezmann who ran in behind the Real defence. He controlled the ball with a superb first touch only for his shot to be blocked by Ramos.
At the other end Oblak did well again to reach out full stretch to palm away a dangerous low cross from Benzema.
A defence cutting pass from Coke found Griezmann well positioned to bring the ball inside and shoot, but his tame effort went straight to Navas. Griezmann saw another effort roll just wide and that was the closest he came to scoring.
As the first half ended, it was clear that Athletico needed to change their approach. Simeone took decisive action and hauled off the defensively minded Fernandez and sent on Carrasco to provide more support for the attack in the second half.
Within a minute of the restart Athletico had a penalty from Pepe’s clumsy foul on Torres. Griezmann stepped up for the spot kick only to blast it against the underside of the bar. Despite this squandered opportunity, Athletico contributed to push and Real found themselves in a much more even battle than in the first half.
Simeone looked to release some of his tension as he raised his arms again and again to lift the Athletico fans.
Ronaldo struggled to impose himself on the game, but he did manage to dribble through the Athletico defence. Godin made a vital challenge that took the ball away from him.
Modric was the next Real player to unlock the Athletico defence with a telling ball that Benzema chased onto, but when he found himself one on one with Oblak the keeper saved smartly.
These missed chances proved costly when, with just twelve minutes left of normal time, Athletico found a way back into the match. A volleyed cross from Juanfran found Carrasco who smashed the ball into the back of the net from two yards out! Carrasco rushed to the crowd and kissed his girlfriend, Noemie Happart, a former Miss Belgium! What a way to celebrate!
The final chance of normal time looked to be on for Athletico as Carassco accelerated forward on the counterattack. Sergio Ramos did what he had to and took Carassco out with a professional foul.
Extra time arrived and Athletico began with great confidence, playing back heeled passes that Barcelona would be proud of. Carrasco had the better of Danilo as he showed more star quality than Ronaldo or Bale.
Zidane applauded nervously from the technical area as the momentum seemed to have shifted to Athletico.
Bale blazed over with a long range shot and Ronaldo headed straight into the hands of Oblak. Griezmann tried an ambitious overhead kick. Neither team came close to taking the lead.
The second half of extra time yielded even fewer good chances as both teams tired and several players suffered from cramp. It was soon time for a shootout.
While penalties offer great drama and excitement, they are a somewhat arbitrary way to decide such a big game. The determining factor being who has the most nerve, who can take the pressure.
Simeone went onto the pitch to lift both his players and the Athletico fans. Zidane talked to individual players while Simeone seemed to address his players as a team.
Vazquez was the first player to take a penalty for Real. He spun the ball coolly on his finger like a basketball player before placing the ball on the spot and then stroking it smoothly home.
Athletico selected Griezmann for their first pen, despite him missing earlier in the game. He showed great courage and made no mistake this time.
Marcelo, Gabi, Bale, Saul and Ramos all converted perfectly. The keepers had no chance.
Juanfran, who had done so well to set up Athletico’s equialiser, was next up. His shot hit the post and bounced out.
Cometh the hour, cometh The Man. Real’s greatest ever goal scorer and arguably the best player in the world showed that he has the incredible nerve to match his superlative skills. He scored the winning penalty that delivered Real Madrid’s eleventh European Cup.
Leicester City winning the Premiership was a refreshing reminder that a football team can achieve great things by working hard together to become greater than the sum of their parts. The Champions League final was a reality check, a reminder of the power of the Galacticos. The giants of the game will normally win out, as they did on this occasion.
Athletico lost to Real in the Champions League final two years ago and they suffered defeat again this year by the narrowest of margins. They have never won the European Cup. It would have been no surprise if some of the Athletico fans had taken out their disappointment on Juanfran for missing his penalty. Juanfran was distraught after his mistake, but, rather than hide away, he bravely went to applaud the Athletico fans. As he approached them, there were no recriminations, the Athletico fans rose as one to applaud him. It must have been some consolation to Juanfran in the most difficult moment of his professional career. In the midst of their despair, the Athletico fans found the courage to show incredible grace in defeat.
The history books will record yet another victory for Real Madrid, but many football fans will remember this Champions League final for the incredible support shown by the Athletico Madrid fans for their fallen hero.
Follow Matthew Line on Twitter – @MattyLine