Real Madrid became Champions League winners by prioritizing sense over Galácticos

There’s been a European Cup-winning side at the Bernabeu all along. Florentino Perez just had to let them play.


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It was an exceptionally appropriate way to end things. Real Madrid are a team built on the basis that whatever the circumstances, however dubious the wider performance, and however incoherent the overall package, extraordinary players will find, create or be given opportunities and be able to take them. So Cristiano Ronaldo, having spent two hours taking a pleasant, unobtrusive walk around a small park in Milan, popped up and slammed home the winning penalty.

(Then he took his top off, because of course he took his top off, because why wouldn’t you take your top off if you were Cristiano Ronaldo and you’d just scored the winning penalty in the Champions League final? It would have been deeply disturbing if he hadn’t; it would have been a betrayal of the brand. He’s Cristiano Ronaldo. Goals and abs, abs and goals, nipples.)

It’s easy to dislike Real Madrid. It’s possibly even righteous to do so, if that’s your thing. From Florentino Pérez in the directors’ box down to Pepe on the floor, there’s no shortage of villainy, comedy or otherwise. And that was all enhanced last night by the opposition, Atlético Madrid, who are both a highly likeable and admirable team and one of the best stories in elite football over the last few years. A story crying out for a big-eared ending.

Still, no team wins a European Cup by accident, and Real’s victory tells us interesting things about them and, perhaps, about the competition itself. The club first: this season has been, essentially, a total mess from start to finish. The club appointed the wrong manager, interfered in his team selections, then replaced him halfway through the season. The club’s transfer dealings left one goalkeeper in Manchester and another in tears. By the end of the campaign, the club’s most recent Galáctico, James Rodríguez, couldn’t even get on the pitch.

Yet it ended with the trophy, the most important of the lot. Clearly, while the principle of buying big and brilliant may not lend itself to team building in the traditional sense, it does afford a club a certain resilience in the face of chaos. After all, having Ronaldo around covers a lot (and having Gareth Bale on the other side covers a bit more). He was bobbins in the final, but he scored 16 goals in the 11 games that went beforehand and has managed 51 across all competitions. In total, Real scored 110 goals in the league and 28 in 13 European games, which is silly.

As for the Champions League, Real are the second team in five years to sack a manager halfway through a season and end up winning the thing. The parallels between Zinedine Zidane’s Madrid and Roberto di Matteo’s Chelsea go beyond both men lacking hair and preferring a skinny tie. They show that the group stage performs its intended purpose and makes it exceptionally difficult for a big club — even one that isn’t necessarily at peace with itself — to knock itself out of the group stage. And they show that the right managerial change — a reasonable characterisation, at least from the outside, might be from overcontrolling to relaxed — can, coupled with a little luck and the inherent vagaries of cup football, end up working out rather nicely.

Of course, being the manager after the manager has other advantages: Mid-season emergency managers are able to get away with what their predecessors could not. Benitez, per reports, felt unable to pick Casemiro in the 4-0 defeat to Barcelona, due to a pressure to be seen to attack in big games, and felt … let’s say encouraged to experiment with Gareth Bale as a number 10. Zidane, coming in after that didn’t work, could restore Bale to the flanks and build his midfield around Casemiro; the latter, not by coincidence, was brilliant against Atléti.

So was Luka Modric. Indeed, a midfield three of Casemiro, Modric and Toni Kroos, with Pepe (when he’s defending, which he is very good at), Sergio Ramos and Keylor Navasbehind them and Bale, Ronaldo and Benzema ahead, perhaps reveals the real lesson of last night, which is that Real Madrid — surprise! — are actually quite a well put together football team, when they’re allowed to be. Most clubs struggle against the economic forces of the game, trying to find players that they can afford that will fit the team and make them better. Real, with the ability to afford anyone and attract almost anyone, have a different struggle, summed up in the benchbound James. Common sense — and the lattitude afforded Zidane but not Benitez — delivered the European Cup. You have to wonder how long it will last.

Finally, a note for luck. Luck kept Real out of the way out Barcelona and Bayern Munich in the knockout stages. It’s impossible to know for certain, but you have to imagine that either would have triumphed over two legs. And Real were also fortunate that Atlético, at least for the first half, lacked their usual fizz, and that Jan Oblak seems to have no idea how to even start to save a penalty. But they played as well as they had to at every stage, answered every challenge — just about — and when the penalty shootout came around, and football was stripped of all its nonsense and reduced to its most fundamental interaction, they were better at kicking the ball in the net than the other lot. Which seems a reasonable way of determining who should win the cup, however likeable they might be.