OPINION: A dominant display from the world’s best team

In the end, it all looked so easy. Once Real Madrid broke through the black-and-white wall that stood in their way during the first half, it was a free for all.

Real Madrid, UEFA Champions League Final

Real Madrid lift the trophy... once again the champions of Europe Source: Getty Images Europe

Hats off to the Spaniards. Juventus was meant to be the tripwire that messed up Zinedine Zidane’s team; their defence supposedly impenetrable and their tactical innovation on a different level. It proved quite the opposite.

Broadly speaking, most will think of this past decade as the era of Barcelona, ever since Pep Guardiola first took charge there in 2008. But the startling fact is that for everything Barca have achieved in terms of titles, Real Madrid have matched them in that time.

And with three Champions League titles in the past four years, Real have stamped themselves as the world’s best team.
Right now, this cannot be disputed, especially since they also won La Liga and saw off the same team that eliminated Barca from the Champions League.

In the most competitive era in the history of football – of which this undoubtedly is – Real Madrid have reached heights few thought they could ever scale. La Decima is now deep in the rear vision mirror and Zidane has now won as many European Cup/Champions League trophies as Brian Clough, Helenio Herrera, Arrigo Sacchi, José Mourinho, Josep Guardiola and Vicente del Bosque.

And Zidane took hugely gutsy decisions in the lead-up: dropping James Rodriguez from his squad entirely and cutting Gareth Bale from the starting side.

It’s debatable if they were the right calls, but what is not in dispute now that is that Zidane now sits in the managerial elite.
But the question leading into Saturday night’s final was all about how long Juventus could hold their nerve, especially and Cristiano Ronaldo and co. More on CR7 later.

Pre-game, plenty of pundits were prepared to air the reasons the Turin-based club could lift their first European trophy in over 20 years. To that end, the first 45 minutes justified the belief that Massimiliano Allegri’s team would go the distance.

Juve began the brighter of the two teams and played with an unusually high tempo – more how they play domestically than in the Champions League. They aggressively moved the ball forward, more so than expected.

While it was Real who opened the scoring with a glorious, coast-to-coast move that Cristiano Ronaldo finished brilliantly (set up by Dani Carvajal’s unbelievable sprint down the right side), the response through Mario Mandžukić was superb.

Truly, this was a goal for the ages. It seemed fanciful he could pull off the attempt from that range – only Zlatan would dare attempt such a thing – but he did. What a moment for a player who deserves more recognition for his deeds. Just for good measure, the Croatian finished the night with more tackles than any of his teammates.

However, it was was another member of the Vatreni who turned the game the other way. Luka Modric may be the best player Croatia has ever produced and his performance in Cardiff was the best of any midfielder on either side. Few players do their deeds so brilliantly with so little fanfare.

Bizarrely, for a player who is contracted until 2020, rumours have been bubbling that he will leave for either Bayern Munich or Paris Saint-Germain this summer. On the evidence here, Modric can’t be allowed to go anywhere. His effort to reach the ball and cross for Ronaldo’s second goal was unbelievable.

Modric outshone his midfield partner, Toni Kroos, but together with Casemiro and Isco, the quartet played narrow and – from about five minutes into the second half – overwhelmed Sami Khedira and Mirajem Pjanic.

Crucially, Alex Sandro and Dani Alves were too high and wide when they needed to think about defence. Neither was half as effective as Marcelo, who offered tireless contributions at either end. The ground he covers is like having an extra player on the pitch and he finishes the season as the best wing-back in the game.

Funilly enough, while Juventus haven’t missed Paul Pogba all year, tonight was the night they needed him and not the player they bought with his transfer proceeds money, Gonzalo Higuain, who was totally anonymous.
He also had no calming influence on the hyperactive Paolo Dybala, who soon fizzed out of energy.

Ultimately, Juventus needed everyone to be on their game – as they have been for months – to make a play at the title. By contrast, Real needed only three or four players in that zone, and ended up getting seven or eight.

And when one of those players is Cristiano Ronaldo, chances are you’ll win. His first goal was a sublime act of timing, the second a brilliant act of poaching. Both times, he outsmarted the “BBC” defence and the helpless Gigi Buffon.

Say what you like about Ronaldo, but the man is a genius. At 32, he’s still unstoppable, and again demonstrated why he is among the greatest four or five the game has ever known.

Indeed, the player, and his club, were made to put on a show. On the biggest stage, they once again put on a performance befitting the world’s best.

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5 min read
Published 4 June 2017 at 1:12pm
By Sebastian Hassett