La Decima has been achieved, nine years after Zinedane Zidane’s sublime full volley clinched the Glasgow final against Bayer Leverkusen. Real Madrid certainly did it the hard way, and there lies credit to their neighbours and city rivals in red, Atletico Madrid. Much pre-match talk was about the fitness of both team’s leading attacking personel, whether Cristiano Ronaldo was going to be fit for Real while Diego Costa was hoping for a miracle in order to start the biggest match in Atletico’s history.
As it was, both men started. But as one hobbled off just nine minutes in and the other not really impressing, this was a game where the support cast stepped up and gave neutrals, and probably Real fans alike, a magnificent finale befitting this season’s Champions League.
European Hierarchy Maintained
Just like last season’s final, this was a game that pit a traditional heavyweight of European football against a new side trying to break into this elite band of European cup winners. And as it was like last year, European royalty was maintained.
FC Bayern managed to edge Jurgen Klöpp’s Borussia Dortmund, with a late Arjen Robben winner, to seal their treble-winning campaign. This time, Diego Simeone was trying to seal a league and cup double for Atletico, while Carlo Ancelotti was attempting to seal the much-vaunted tenth European title to go along with the Copa del Rey they won earlier this season.
Real prevailed, alas requiring a 93rd minute Sergio Ramos equaliser to force extra-time, but they did, and with that a huge weight lifted off the club, and manager. For most neutrals, it was slightly unfortunate that Atletico couldn’t see the game out, having played well to their strengths and nullifying Real’s attacking threat. But football is a cruel game and last night’s final signified that.
Real’s Missing Attack
“BBC”, as coined by the media, was essentially neutralised by Atletico’s rigid defensive structure, tactical discipline and superb defending. More than £150million spent on their front-line could not see them break past the Atletico defence for 92 minutes. World record signing Gareth Bale missed a sitter and two other good chances, while Ronaldo could not find his way into the game and Karim Benzema was simply anonymous. Yet, like in some of the key games this season, there was still one man to step up – Angel Di Maria.
Many thought that with the signing of Bale, opportunities for Di Maria on Real’s flanks would be severely limited to the extent he would leave the club. However, Ancelotti kept the Argentine, and converted him into a wide-cum-central midfield player, using his energy and pace to complement Luka Modric’s guile and Xabi Alonso’s composed play. When Bale was out injured at the start of the campaign, Di Maria could still fill in on the wings, to great effect.
Last night, with Bale and Ronaldo faltering, Di Maria, starting on the left side of a midfield trio, stepped up and forced his team forward with every opportunity, attacking Atletico’s right-back Juanfran while also driving at the heart of Atletico’s central midfield. When Real was chasing the equaliser as the second half wore on, Ancelotti’s switch to a 4-4-2 meant Di Maria was shifted to the left wing, and it was there where his drive and determination resulted in the shot that led to Bale heading home the rebound. He gave Juanfran something different to deal with as Ronaldo shifted infield alongside Benzema.
Real’s toothless attack could also be attributed to their missing midfield lynchpin, Xabi Alonso. His replacement, Sami Khedira, could not match the Spanish playmaker’s influence and incisive passes from deep. It was only when Ancelotti brought on Isco to replace Khedira, did Modric drop back to fill Alonso’s role, dictating play from deep and taking control of midfield from Atletico duo Gabi and Tiago. And while Ancelotti’s substitutions worked, Simeone’s lack of eventually cost his side.
Simeone gambled by starting his top-scorer Diego Costa, and this was one that ultimately failed when Costa had to be removed only nine minutes in. With one less substitution – the other two he used to bring on Jose Sosa for Raul Garcia and Toby Alderweireld for Felipe Luis – Simeone could not freshen his team at either vital points in the game, the last five minutes of normal time and the start of the second half of extra time. Atletico’s high energy game and constant defending saw their legs severely tire, and without fresh legs to bolster their team, they gave way to Marcelo’s killer third as well as Ronaldo’s fourth.
Tale of Two Centre-Backs
Real’s talented trio was undone by Diego Godin who, if Atletico had won, would have been Man of the Match. His goal gave Atletico something to hold on to and defend. Godin, and Miranda too, headed almost everything Real could throw at them. That one time they could not get their heads onto, was Ramos’ late, late equaliser.
At the other end was Ramos. With Pepe missing, he had to marshall his defence, which included young Raphael Värane. The Spanish World Cup-winning defender drove his team forward from the back, ready to step into midfield especially when Real sought an equaliser. And ultimately, Ramos stepped up when it really, quite literally, mattered.
Alongside Di Maria, Ramos was Man of the Match. He has definitely proved his worth and silenced the critics who questioned why he was named in the FIFPro Team of the Year. Ramos can now look forward to the World Cup, and at his peak now, he will be one of La Furia Roja’s key players as they sought to defend their world title.
And too, what are the odds of Ancelotti being sacked for not winning La Decima in normal time?