There is something so deep and complete about Real Madrid’s relationship with the European Cup that no amount of preparation and perspiration can break it. Not on nights like this. Real Madrid’s European supremacy is a fundamental law of football, one which has been cruelly impressed upon Diego Simeone and Atletico Madrid twice in the space of three seasons.
"Your values make us believe," read the huge banner draped over the Atleti end of the San Siro prior to kick-off. It was not a misplaced belief, but even as Atleti summoned up the immense fortitude that Simeone has installed within them, even as they fought back from an early goal conceded to Sergio Ramos, even as they kept fighting after Antoine Griezmann had missed a penalty and even after the momentum had swung their way with Yannick Carrasco’s equaliser, they eventually had to succumb to what has become the inevitable. Belief was finally extinguished deep into the night in Milan when Real Madrid secured the Undecima - their 11th European Cup.
The natural order of things was preserved when Juanfran missed the eighth penalty of a penalty shootout and it was left to Cristiano Ronaldo to embrace greatness again by slotting home the winner. Minutes later it was Zinedine Zidane, five months into his first senior job - a virtual pet project compared with Simeone’s five-year body of work at the Vicente Calderon - who was hurled into the air by his players. White confetti was flaking from the sky.
The simple truth is that the Champions League gravitates towards larger celestial bodies and there are none bigger than Real Madrid, their Galactico coach, who becomes the seventh man to win the competition as player and manager, or Ronaldo, the greatest of the second-generation Galacticos, who now has three European Cups to his name.
Real Madrid, Ronaldo, Zidane. When the stars align on Champions League final nights, these are the names which create the moments written large in the history of European football. Not their neighbours across town, however expertly organised and motivated they are by Simeone. "I had a vision," said Ronaldo. "I knew that I would score the winning goal... I told Zizou that and to let me take the fifth and that's how it turned out.” How simple it looks when you have won. Again.
Simeone had no such Nostradamus moment to impart to the press - his was a tale of unadulterated woe - but the Argentine still drew on a flavour of mysticism as he tried to explain how his side had now lost twice in three seasons to Real Madrid. “I believe in destiny, and it is clear our destiny tonight wasn’t to win it,” he said. Maybe it never will be. A belief in destiny now surely equates to defeatism for Atleti, who have lost in the European Cup final in 1974, 2014 and 2016.
The fact that it was Sergio Ramos, scorer of the injury-time equaliser in Lisbon, who put Real Madrid in front after 15 minutes was a bad omen of the agony to come, as was the fact he was clearly offside when getting a faint touch to Gareth Bale’s excellent flick-on from a Toni Kroos free-kick.
Sergio Ramos celebrates scoring the first goal for Real Madrid
Image credit: Reuters
Griezmann then failed to notch his 33rd goal of the season when thumping his penalty against the underside of the bar following a foul from Pepe on Fernando Torres. Simeone tried to coax the Atleti fans to turn San Siro into a cauldron of noise with his constant gesticulations on the touchline, just as he never stops making demands of his players, but the tide would not turn through sheer force of his will. Atleti had to earn it. They always do.
There was a moment when it felt as though fate was twitching in their favour, that precedence was in the process of being overturned. In 2014 in Lisbon, after all, it was Simeone’s team who were gasping for air by the end, with all their substitutions spent and key players limping through the final minutes. Here in Milan, it was Zidane who jumped the gun with his three changes. And in a muscular game which at times resembled a demolition derby with collisions all over the turf, Ronaldo further appeared patently unfit, though Zidane denied it, with Bale also succumbing to cramp.
Zidane’s decision to take off Toni Kroos and replace him with Isco after 72 minutes seemed particularly unnecessary, not least because the German - cool, collected and careful in possession - is exactly the kind of player you want when clinging on to a narrow lead. Seven minutes after his removal Carrasco struck, firing home emphatically after Juanfran had latched on to Gabi’s gorgeous scooped pass to volley a cross to the back post. The game could have hinged on this moment, which threatened to expose Zidane’s lack of experience.
Simeone, by contrast, was keeping his powder dry. Torres, a man who completed no passes and had no shots in the first half at all, managed to stay on the pitch and with every passing minute it seemed more and more bizarre. Carrasco had entered as a first-half substitute, injecting dynamism and threat in wide areas, but Simeone was reluctant to raise the board again even at 1-0 down with 15 minutes to go. Maybe he knew extra-time was coming. That is the thing about suffering aching disappointments in a coaching career: they can condition you to avoid them again. Simeone was planning ahead. Zidane, just five months into his job and his naivety on show, seemed to have been unwittingly lured into a trap of his own creation.
Yannick Carrasco celebra el gol del empate en la final de Champions
Image credit: AFP
And yet it transpired to be Zidane who was being discussed in the same breath as Alfredo Di Stefano in his post-match press conference, while a glum Simeone was left contemplating his future. He has ended Real's domestic dominance over Atleti and brought trophies to Vicente Calderon, but despite his best efforts Europe has been a glass ceiling too strong to shatter. Atleti were not able to complete the comeback as Real Madrid had done in Lisbon. It is not in their “DNA” - the term used by Real president Florentino Perez in the early hours of Sunday to describe his club’s remarkable association with this competition.
On a night when legends were fortified, in a stadium fitting of the occasion at the grand San Siro, it was only right that the final word went to Ronaldo. Until the last kick of the game he had endured one of his most ineffectual performances in a Madrid shirt. He missed crucial chances - one header begging to be buried and a curious stepover shot which seemed to overcomplicate matters in particular - and even at one stage completely failed to control a cross-field pass which came his way. He needed to stretch out his injury and physical discomfort was matched by mental torture on a night in which nothing came off - until it did in the biggest way possible.
Fate has a habit of intervening in such things and when Juanfran, one of the symbols of the Atleti team crafted by Simeone, hit the base of the post, it was left to Ronaldo to put Real Madrid’s name on the cup again. It was somehow inevitable. Ronaldo, Real Madrid, Zidane. The last of whom has now opened a new chapter in this remarkable history.
“Yes, it’s the team of my life,” said Zidane. “It’s the club which has made me the biggest in everything and it was, is and always will be a very great club.” Especially when it comes to the European Cup.