Atlético reaches its breaking point as Real Madrid claims La Decima
LISBON -- It turns out there was a breaking point for Diego Simeone's magnificent Atlético Madrid side, and it came with 10 minutes of extra-time remaining. The club had won La Liga and was within two minutes of winning a first ever Champions League. Even after conceding to Sergio Ramos, there was still a chance it could cling on through extra-time for penalties, but once Gareth Bale had headed Real Madrid into the lead, it collapsed -- physically and emotionally shattered. Marcelo's late drive and Cristiano Ronaldo's even later penalty added an unrepresentative one-sidedness to the scoreline, but there was no shame in defeat.
As Real celebrated la decima -- its tenth European title -- with understandable gusto, there was just a sadness, a sense that this had been Atlético's chance and it may not come again any time soon. It was 40 years since it was last in a final; it could easily be that long before it gets there again. This has been an exceptional season, achieved with a small squad and with a first team that cost less than half of Gareth Bale or Cristiano Ronaldo, and it's unreasonable to expect that to be repeated next season. It was perhaps a realization that this is almost certainly the end of the dream that prompted Diego Simeone's fury after the fourth goal, storming into the pitch to confront Raphael Varane, who seemed to have kicked the ball at the Atlético bench. "When it's 4-1, it's pointless to create that kind of situation," he said. "Maybe you can say it's pointless for me to get angry, but when you see a young player charging like that its ugly."
By the time he reached the post-match press conference, Simeone was philosophical. "You have to look at it overall," he said. "If you analyze the whole match, Real Madrid were better in the second half, kept us pinned back in our own half and we couldn't get out. It was very difficult to deal with. We're taught that winning is the most important thing, and I've said that, but with the support we've had from people, it makes you realize it's not just that side to football. I said to the players that it's pointless to cry over this match because when you play as well as you have, you keep your head up and start thinking of next league season." He vowed that his team would again "be gadflies" next season, that they would "keep annoying people".
And his side had come so close. In 1974, it was an injury-time equalizer from Georg Schwarzenbeck, a Bayern Munich center back of previously unremarkable goal scoring exploits that had shattered Atlético at the end of extra-time. This time it was an injury-time equalizer from Sergio Ramos, a center back in a surprisingly rich vein of goal scoring form -- six in seven games -- at the end of normal time that took the victory from Atlético's grasp. "I feel bitter that I didn't reach the objective many people expected, not sad," Simeone said. "I wish I could have won the way I wanted, but I'm calm and I can overcome this. One day you've got everything, another day you have nothing: you've just got to keep going, in life and in football."
Not just one day, but one minute. If Sergio Ramos hadn't scored, imagine the reaction then. Gareth Bale had missed three good chances: it's easy to imagine he would have become the scapegoat, the price tag weighing him down. As it was, he was given an extra half hour to score a goal that will add to his legend: he is only the fourth Welsh winner of the European Cup and the first to score in the final. "He didn't shoot well but at the right moment he was ready to score," said Carlo Ancelotti. "All season, Gareth was really good and he will be better next year."
If Ramos hadn't scored, what then for Iker Casillas, whose error had gifted Diego Godin Atlético's goal? Last time Real Madrid won the Champions League, he was a 20-year-old second half substitute. Now, having just turned 33, he might have been contemplating the twilight of his career, an error at a key moment of a major final heralding his demise just as his performance after replacing Cesar in 2002 had heralded his rise.
Even Ancelotti, who now stands alongside Bob Paisley as one of only two managers to have won the Champions League three times -- to go with the twice he won it as a player -- might not have survived to next season at the Bernabeu. Or if he had, it would have been under great pressure. Now he is feted as the man who won la decima. "From the first day," Ancelotti said, "I went to the trophy room with the president and said, 'There's one missing.' Now, we've won the most important competition in the world."