MILAN – It was not a great final, and perhaps not a great season in the Champions League, but nobody at Real Madrid will care about that. It won the tournament for an 11th time, taking it four clear of its nearest rival–and Saturday's host–AC Milan with a 5-3 triumph in penalties over Atletico Madrid after the city foes played to a 1-1 draw.
For Zinedine Zidane this marked an extraordinary start to his managerial reign: a 22nd win in his 27th match in charge brought the biggest trophy of all, and made him the seventh man to win the title as both a player and a manager.
The hope for Madrid is that it now stands on the threshold of a period of major success. A frustrating eight-year spell, despite vast expenditure, has brought two Champions League titles but just one league trophy. There is a strange sense in which the format of the tournament makes it easier to win for the superclubs–or at least those with a genuinely competitive domestic league. If you’re wealthy enough and good enough regularly to be in the mix–and this was the sixth successive season it has reached the semifinals–the Champions League can be won without the sort of sustained excellence that a league title demands.
Sergio Ramos had given Madrid a first-half lead, but Atletico leveled through the substitute Yannick Carrasco with 11 minutes remaining. At that point, the momentum seemed with Atleti, but it failed to finish off a tiring side in extra time, and when Juanfran hit the post with his penalty in the shootout, it was left to Cristiano Ronaldo to hammer in the winning kick.
Until then, Ronaldo had been largely peripheral, looking far from fit. By the end of normal time he was clearly in difficulty, but Zidane, mystifyingly, had used all three of his substitutions by then. The removal of Toni Kroos for Isco after 72 minutes, arguably, was what changed the momentum of the game. Ronaldo did have a glorious chance four minutes into extra time but, from six yards, he fluffed his header straight into the hands of Oblak. But it’s the nature of a player like Ronaldo to rise to the occasion, and, after missing in the shootout when Manchester United beat Chelsea in 2008, this was perhaps some sort of redemption.
One of Diego Simeone’s major successes as Atletico manager has been to eliminate the sense of inferiority that so often used to undermine the club in the past. It’s hard to be definitive about causes, but there was a weird lack of intensity to Atletico in the early stages. The first half was probably the most insipid performance it has given this season, allowing alarming amounts of space in midfield, something Gareth Bale gratefully exploited.
Oblak had already made an outstanding block from Casemiro as he met a Bale free kick four yards out when another free-kick routine from the other flank brought an opener. Bale flicked on Kroos’s delivery, and Sergio Ramos, who had scored the late equalizer in the final two years ago, forced the ball over the line from close range. He was just offside, but the linesman’s flag stayed down.
Madrid’s policy after that was to sit back, playing Atletico at its own game. Atletico dominated possession in the final minutes of the first half, but with Fernando Torres distinctly out of sorts and having the worse of his battle with Pepe, the only chances it created were speculative long-range efforts from Antoine Griezmann.
Simeone has a reputation for delivering inspiring halftime addresses–at Estudiantes once, he showed the whole Al Pacino speech from Any Given Sunday–and the increased sharpness from Atletico in the second half suggested he had given another one here. Within a minute Pepe had been lured into a foolish challenge as Torres turned on a Griezmann pass, conceding a penalty. Griezmann, though, smashed his kick against the crossbar, the second penalty he has missed against Madrid this season.
Stefan Savic jabbed an effort just wide as Madrid struggled to clear a corner eight minutes later, but once that opportunity had gone, Atletico seemed to be running out of ideas while Modric picked it apart on the counterattack. Karim Benzema had a chance to seal the game with a one-on-one but drove his shot at Oblak, and then Bale, following up after another fine save from the Slovenian, saw his effort hacked off the line by Savic.
And them quite unexpectedly, Atletico equalized. Koke was the architect, dinking a chip down the line for Juanfran, whose volleyed cross was turned in at the back post by Carrasco. He celebrated by kissing his girlfriend, Miss Belgium 2013, Noemie Happart, at the front of the stands. The Belgian was a constant threat, his skill and direct running on the counter provoking challenges that saw both Sergio Ramos and Danilo booked.
But the cutting edge, the final thrust to take Atletico over the line, wasn’t quite there. This was a third defeat in three finals, all of them agonizingly close-run things. Simeone has been in charge for two of them and for him the wait goes on. Madrid, though, has an 11th success; oddly, its job is now to live up to that with the sort of sustained form that might, despite the pending transfer ban, bring it another league title.