Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid belongs among football’s great teams after winning a 13th European Cup, but the 3-1 victory against Liverpool may signal the end of an era for the club.
In the annals of football history, it will not matter – the details, the minutiae, even the rippling of the net. Even in the minds of the players and the coaches – the protagonists – it won’t matter. The resplendence of Gareth Bale’s bicycle kick, Loris Karius’ calamitous blunders and Mohamed Salah’s heartbreaking injury – of an epic Champions League final will eventually be of little importance.
In the end, Madrid played with the cockiness its players have shown over the last couple of seasons. In their superiority, they always apply a pleasant brutality and aggression to their game. They were not as dominant in this final as against Juventus last year, but this win was more significant. In Cardiff last year, Madrid shed the tag of ‘Galacticos’ and needed an epithet befitting a new merengue generation whose trademark was not playing thrilling football or honouring the game’s finest virtues but winning.
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On Saturday, Zidane and this Madrid team ascended to the pantheon, like the Ajax Amsterdam of Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer’s Bayern Munich before them. They are no longer simply great; they already belong to history.
The game had been billed the perfect final, the ultimate encounter between two giants of Europe with different cultural identifies and distinct philosophies. Kyiv was to host a high-octane, high-intensity, old-fashioned final. Cristiano Ronaldo, the supreme contemporary athlete, was to meet Mohamed Salah, Liverpool’s new talisman and mooted as the interloper in the celestial yet fading Ronaldo-Lionel Messi duopoly.
But neither a romantic final nor an artsy duel of scheming superstars materialised. Salah never got the chance to topple the kings of Europe as Madrid captain Sergio Ramos and his mastery of the dark art – his vice – prevented the Egyptian from expressing his full potential. Salah left the field weeping, his team shell-shocked.
The final turned dystopian, anticlimatic and epic at the same time. Liverpool no longer had any momentum; their self-belief had been drained and, with it, the idea of Jürgen Klopp’s glorious fantasy football restoring the team as a European great faded. Madrid, who had been pestered by the English side and its electrifying front line, was lifted. Los Blancos sensed Liverpool’s vulnerability. Salah was always going to be crucial to Liverpool’s attack and its tempo, but without its superstar, the Merseyside team lacked ideas.
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What followed was a display of Madrid’s ruthlessness. Even Sadio Mane’s quick reaction and timely equaliser were irrelevant as Madrid marched to victory. Zidane’s decision to replace Isco with Bale was a master stroke. The Welshman netted the goals that propelled his club to a third consecutive Champions League title in superlative style. His first goal filled the stadium with an almost awkward silence, stunning the spectators with its sheer audacity and dreamlike capacity. This was not a goal that one is supposed to score at all. Bale didn’t strike the ball cleanly, but the imperfect execution was irrelevant. He showed what football could and should be.
Madrid’s historic interpretation as an institution will be simple: Bale’s goal was a measure of the club’s greatness. All the rest doesn’t matter – Karius’ blunders, Ronaldo’s peripheral role and the enduring enigma of Zidane as coach.
In public perception, the Frenchman is still confusing. In Spain, he has been dubbed a ‘clap clap’ coach, one who does little more than shout encouragement from the touchline. Madrid often play chaotically, without much of a plan or distinct philosophy. At the moment, the team’s philosophy is that there simply isn’t one. This laissez-faire attitude has relied much on the team’s outstanding players. Madrid always has extraordinary players, who, in the end, decide the game.
The current crop of Madrid players and their coach may not be loved much – they do not play the poetic football of Barcelona – but they have come to define the last few seasons of the Champions League, doing it their way, without the three Guardiolan Ps of pressing, positioning and possession. Madrid are nondescript, serial European champions.
Will they win another one next season? Ronaldo has, yet again, hinted that he is leaving the club. Bale, in the middle of the celebrations, also suggested that Madrid may no longer be his future. Ronaldo leaving would be the end of era, but it doesn’t matter. Madrid is already among the great teams of football.