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World Cup 2014

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May 24th, 2014. Estádio da Luz, Lisbon, Portugal. The first Champions League Final – the first elite European Cup competition final – ever to be played out between two teams from the same city. El Derbi had reached its finest hour, and whilst most of the world were gunning for Diego Simeone’s plucky upstarts Atleti, hoards of Madridistas were desperate for the exact opposite. The majority of fans can only dream of seeing their club grace the most prestigious tournament in club football; for the sides that do make it, any good performance or run in the Champions League is the pinnacle of their players’ careers. Yet some teams are different. For some sides, getting to the final of the Champions League is not just expected by their support, but demanded. For some, winning the Champions League is all that matters. For one team in particular, being crowned Champions of Europe once more would top everything. What Real have wanted with a passion bordering on neuroticism for the past decade and beyond is to win the Champions League for an unprecedented tenth time. This is the story of the white half of Madrid’s obsession with La Décima, and how Carlo Ancelotti’s men were the side that finally achieved it.   

 

Real Madrid enjoy finally securing 'La Decima'. winnipegfreepress.com

Los Blancos’ famous victory over their cross-city rivals Atlético Madrid three weeks ago already seems like a lifetime away. A week may be a long time in politics, but in football, it is an age, and three weeks is almost a lifetime - especially when there is a World Cup in full swing and the scent of FIFA corruption around every corner. Imagine, then, what twelve years feels like.

It’s 2002, and the whole world is gearing up for a Far Eastern World Cup in Korea and Japan; Arsenal have just completed the Double, and few outside England have ever heard of Man City. In Spain itself, Valencia have just claimed their fifth La Liga title, Deportivo La Coruña the Copa del Rey, and Atléti the Segunda División. The world’s most expensive player is one Zinedine Zidane

– more on him shortly. And on the 15th May 2002, all footballing eyes were alighting on Hampden Park, Scotland’s national stadium, for Europe’s jewel in the crown club competition-wise; the Champions League Final.

Madrid had negotiated their way past two group stages – remember those, folks? – during their Champions League campaign of 2001-2002, brushing past the likes of Anderlecht, Panathinaikos and Sparta Prague. A close two-legged quarter final against Bayern Munich followed, edged in the end 3-2 on aggregate by Los Vikingos, which in turn set up a mouth-watering semi-final against Barcelona; El Clásico. Vicente del Bosque’s Madrid side did the hard work in the first-leg at Camp Nou, managing to shut out a rampant Barca team containing the likes of Kluivert, Overmars and Motta, whilst having the nerve to attack themselves and score two sublime chips, the first courtesy of that man again, Zidane, the second via an unlikely partner in crime – Steve McManaman. The return leg in Madrid almost didn’t take place at all, after a bomb planted by the now defunct Basque separatist group ETA exploded in front of the Bernabéu just hours before the match was due to start. Despite gifting Barca a place on the score sheet, thanks to Helguera’s own goal, Real held on at home, Raúl’s first-half strike ensuring a 3-1 victory for Madrid overall and a trip to Glasgow for the Champions League Final. 

Odds-on to win against Klaus Toppmöller’s Bayer Leverkusen, the game started off in Los Blancos’ favour, Raúl netting first for the Spaniards in the eighth minute with a somewhat cheeky little strike, latching onto one of Roberto Carlos’ ridiculous throw-ins. However, within five minutes Leverkusen had equalised, Brazilian defender Lúcio heading Schneider’s free-kick past Real goalie Sánchez. A series of half-chances followed for either side, and just as it looked as if the teams would go into the interval all square at one each, Zinedine Zidane happened.       

You could spend all day watching this peach of a strike – it deserves a whole article in its honour. Those who saw it live will surely never forget the experience. On the stroke of half time, Madrid’s French Galactico found Roberto Carlos’ chipped cross perfectly, arcing his left leg up to volley the ball home with finesse and aplomb. It’s the sort of goal dreams are made of, finals are made for, that 12 year old Welsh boys watch at home and become inspired by – but more on that later, too. Zidane’s wonder strike (‘thunderbastard’ is far too harsh an epithet for such art) was enough to separate Madrid from their German rivals, though Los Blancos did require some last-minute heroics from baby-faced substitute Iker Casillas, who, five days short of his 21st birthday, was already playing in his second Champions League Final. When Swiss ref Meier blew the whistle after seven minutes of injury time, he wasn’t just signalling the end of a truly great final, and the addition of one more trophy to Madrid’s burgeoning cabinet. He was announcing the start of an obsession. The quest for La Décima was on.      

The first question to ask, of course, is why? Why 10? Why the fascination? Couldn’t Madrid just enjoy themselves, and bask in their reflected glory? After all, back in 2002, the nearest club to them in terms of European Cup Winners’ rankings were Milan, who by then had only won a paltry five. Great teams are made up of great athletes, and great athletes almost never lose their competitive streak, so the fact that the Champions League was there to be won again was motivation enough for Los Merengues. Of course, 10 is a good, whole number, a milestone, double figures – which team wouldn’t want to win something ten times? To be a part of that achievement, whether as player, manager or fan, would be something special indeed. Since the competition had changed its name and format to the Champions League a decade earlier, no team, Madrid included, had managed to retain their European title. The hunger was there for an historic victory, one that Madridistas had every cause to believe would be quick in coming; after all, it only taken them since 1998 to win trophies 7, 8 and 9.

Real Madrid winning their 7th Champions League crown in 1998. tdifh.blogspot.com

Perhaps it’s only fair to go back further, and truly start at the beginning. Many accusations can be levelled at Madrid; arrogance, establishmentism, a certain unsavoury nationalism stoked by a combination of the fierce rivalry with Catalan Barca, the antics of their Ultras, and the association with the club sought by Fascist dictator Francisco Franco. If Madrid fans have a sense of ownership over the European Cup, however, you can’t really blame them; they won it not just in its inaugural year, but for the first five years of its existence consecutively, playing the sort of football that goes down as legend. Only Ajax and Bayern Munich come close with their triple European Cup triumphs in the 70s. Packed with players who still make the mouth drool half a century on – the likes of Di Stefano, Kopa and Puskás – the Madrid sides of the late 50s racked up their first five European titles in style, memorably thrashing Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 at, of all stadiums, Hampden Park in 1960, for Title No. 5. The ignominy of losing to Barcelona 4-3 on aggregate in the First Round of the 1960-61 campaign must have seemed unreal to Real, if you will; they wouldn’t lift ‘their’ trophy again until 1966, after a 2-1 victory over Partizan Belgrade at Heysel. If the wait for La Décima has been unbearable for Madridistas since 2002, the wait for Real’s seventh European trophy must have been unimaginable.

Fast forward thirty-two years, and suddenly everything has changed. The Millennium is just around the corner, Spain is now a democracy, and Real Madrid have a new set of superstars amongst their ranks; Roberto Carlos, Clarence Seedorf, Fernando Morientes, Raúl. After winning Group D, Real ironically beat Leverkusen 4-1 over two legs in the quarters, making light work of Borussia Dortmund (2-0 on agg.) in the semis. Mijatović’s 66th minute striker’s pounce in Amsterdam against the Old Lady of Italy, Juventus, was enough to earn La Septima for Los Blancos. Madrid made hard work of their eighth Euro Cup two years later, however, topping their first group but coming behind Bayern Munich in the second group stage. Nevertheless, Los Vikingos managed to get past holders Manchester United and German champions Bayern, earning the right to play Valencia in the Final and claim their second European Cup in three years. With a teenage Casillas and a young Nicolas Anelka in their starting line-up, Real defeated their compatriots Valencia 3-0 at the Stade de France. Morientes, McManaman and Raúl found their way on to the score sheet, courtesy of a cute header, a stunning strike and a cheeky drag respectively. A loss in the semi-finals to eventual winners Bayern Munich prevented Madrid from retaining their crown in 2001, but this must have seemed like a mere blip from the joyous perspective of twelve months down the line, the ninth trophy safely in the Bernabéu’s cabinet, the hunt for the tenth already started. Little did any Madridista know back then that it would cost the club £999 million (the Daily Mail says it, so it must be true), eleven managers and a whole load of heartbreak, almost driving all connected with Los Blancos crazy with the pursuit.   

If anyone ever doubts the extent to which Real wanted to win La Décima, just consider that transfer fee number for a second. £999 million – according to Google’s currency converter, that’s one BILLION, two hundred and thirty-five million, seven hundred and sixty three thousand Euros. In other words, it’s ridiculous. Of course, such moolah has bought the likes of Beckham, Kaká, Cristiano Ronaldo and Bale to the Spanish capital, and talent never comes cheap. Chances are club president Florentino Pérez would have stuck with his Galácticos policy regardless, though the need for La Décima most certainly leant an air of desperation to proceedings at times. As Ronaldo told UEFA.com before this year’s Final, ‘Since the first day we [new Madrid players] came here, we've felt that positive pressure to win the Champions League’. He may have glossed it with the word ‘positive’, but be in no doubt; from the fans, the board and the team itself, since 2002 there has been untold pressure on Madrid to achieve their tenth European victory and further cement their place in history as one of the truly great clubs of all time.

To be fair, it was realistic to expect, after seven, eight and nine coming so close together, that ten would soon follow. The nagging feeling that it wouldn’t, the pessimism that all football fans know like the face of an old friend, has haunted Madrid this past decade. What if another team beats us to it? What if we don’t win again, ever? By 2007, Milan were getting perilously close. The Italian side containing the likes of Maldini, Shevchenko and Pirlo won the Champions League in 2003, beating fellow Serie A side Juventus on penalties at Old Trafford. Real had succumbed to Juve in the semi-finals, after getting through a ridiculous quarter-final against Manchester United, the aggregate score eventually ending 6-5 to the Whites. Still, 2004 was all set to be Los Blancos’ year; every other year was the way they did things now, after all. Except that Monaco didn’t read the script, progressing at the expense of Madrid on the away goals rule with the score locked at 5-5 after the two semi-finals. Cruelly, one of the killer goals for the ‘French’ side came from a certain Fernando Morientes, who was on loan to the Ligue 1 club at the time. By now, the managerial merry-go-round was in action at the Bernabéu; del Bosque’s replacement Carlos Queiroz (familiar to Premier League fans as a former Manchester United assistant) duly left his position, only to be replaced in turn by two managers (Camacho and Remón) in the space of a year. Retrospectively, it is easy to look back now and point the finger at the sacking of del Bosque; rumours of a dressing room spilt caused in part by the control Madrid’s hierarchy had over transfer policy and team selection meant the successful manager, who would go on to work wonders with Spain’s national side1, became an unwillingly victim in Madrid’s, and in particular Perez’s, ruthless pursuit of further success. More upheaval and, horrifically, more failure was still to come for Los Blancos, however. By 2004-05, Madrid were about to enter their six years of Champions League hell.  

Former Real Madrid boss, Vanderei Luxemburgo. esportes.r7.com

Madrid were already on their fourth manager – Brazilian Vanderlei Luxemburgo – since del Bosque by the time they were turfed out of the 2004-05 Champions League. Dispatched by old adversaries Juve in the Round of 16, Madrid succumbed to a Zalayeta goal in extra time. 2005-06 brought with it promises, hope and the usual high expectations; after all, Liverpool’s second half heroics against Milan were proof that anything was possible in the beautiful game. Arsenal thought otherwise, dumping Real out of the Round of 16 in March 06; Ramos, Ronaldo and Beckham unable to register against a classic Gunners side containing Ljungberg, Fàbregas and Henry. Coming second in the group stages, as Real did in both 04-05 and 05-06, was the real killer, not only drawing Los Blancos against a group winner in the first knockout round but also underlining how difficult the club were suddenly finding competing in the Champions League to be. Coupled with a barren three years in La Liga, it was all too much for Club President Pérez, who promptly resigned.

The summer of 2006 saw a new era begin at the Santiago Bernabéu, with the perhaps unfortunately named Ramón Calderón elected as Real’s new President, Fabio Capello appointed manager for the second time and former Whites hero Mijatović named Director of Football. The curse continued for Capello’s men, however; Los Vikingos again came second in the group stages of the Champions League in 06-07, cruelly losing out on away goals in the Round of 16 to Bayern Munich. Winning La Liga for the first time since 2003 wasn’t enough to negate Madrid’s failure at the first knockout hurdle for the third year running, and Capello was forced to fall on his sword. Bernd Schuster was the next man chosen to take the Bernabéu helm, but the Round of 16 curse was not going to go away; despite topping Group C at the expense of Olympiacos, Werder Bremen and Lazio, Real lost 2-1 to Roma both home and away in early 2008, ending their La Décima ambitions for another year. By the time Madrid faced their Round of 16 nemesis in 2009, another new face was in charge; fresh from the dugout at White Hart Lane, Juande Ramos was the man tasked with seeing Real get past Liverpool. It’s safe to say he failed. Madrid were humiliated 5-0 on aggregate by their Merseyside counterparts, suffering a 4-0 thrashing in the away leg at Anfield.

There was yet another changing of the guard at the Bernabéu come the summer of 2009, with Chilean manager Manuel Pellegrini ready to take the Madrid hot seat. Having worked wonders with Villarreal in the Champions League, taking the unfancied outsiders all the way to the semi-finals, Pellegrini was expected to do even better with the greater resources at his disposal at Real. He was joined by a returning face at the Bernabéu; Pérez was back for a second stint as President. With La Décima firmly on everyone’s mind, Pellegrini, and more particularly Pérez, went on something of a spending spree, signing Kaká, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso from Milan, Manchester United, Olympique Lyonnais, and Liverpool respectively, for a combined total of approximately £200m. Pellegrini’s comments a few days after Brazilian midfielder Kakà arrived at the Bernabéu are telling; "If we want to win the Champions League and be the best team in the world, we need the best players in the world." Notice the aspiration to win La Décima comes first, with ambitions to be the best team on the planet demoted to second. Though they won their group, Real’s team full of Galáticos once again fell victim to the curse in 2010, succumbing in the Round of 16 2-1 over two legs to Ligue 1 side Lyon – where Benzema, one of Madrid’s supposed new saviours, had just come from. Such abject failure in the Champions League – not getting past the first knock-out stage six years on the trot – was embarrassing enough for Real, yet the debacle that was their European exploits in the Noughties were made far worse by the ascendancy of arch rivals Barcelona towards the end of this period. They say bad luck comes in threes, but for Los Blancos, it comes in sixes.      

The question has to be asked at this stage – why did Madrid endure such a torrid time in the Champions League for the best part of a decade? How could a team full of players the calibre of Kakà, Cristiano Ronaldo and Xabi Alonso, not to mention Higuaín, Sergio Ramos and van Nistelrooy fail to shine when it mattered most, for six different seasons? The pressure the club was putting itself under seems to have backfired, as did the numerous managerial changes – a total of eight - over the six ‘Round of 16’ seasons. A team full of superstars does not a success make, either; in order to gel, sides composed of such players have to be managed with an overall vision. Chopping and changing coaching staff meant players had to adjust to new styles year after year, and no-one was given the time needed to adapt to such new ways of playing. Of all the people to fall foul of Madrid’s impatience, Manuel Pellegrini fell the hardest; in charge for just a solitary season, he may have left the Bernabéu empty-handed but his Los Blancos side did no worse in the Champions League than the five others beforehand, plus also finished La Liga with a then club record 96 points. Misfortune is one excuse Real can’t really use, certainly when it comes to the draw; only twice during those dark six years of underachievement did the Spanish side get booted out by opponents in the Round of 16 who then went on to the semi-finals or beyond (Arsenal were finalists in 2006 and Lyon semi-finalists in 2010). With muted success at home – a club of Madrid’s stature should really win more in six years than two league titles and one Spanish Super Cup - it was time for the powers that be at the Bernabéu to take action. Who you gonna call? The Special One, of course.  

If any man could complete what was swiftly becoming a mammoth task, surely it was Mou. A two-times Champions League winning manager with Porto and Inter – the latter triumph coming at the Bernabéu itself, just days before his appointment as Madrid boss – the Portuguese was tasked with bringing success back to the white half of Madrid after two trophyless seasons. Nothing was craved more than La Décima. Los Blancos got off to a cracking start, steam-rollering all before them in their group – and when that group contains the likes of Milan and Ajax, it’s impressive. Drawn against 2009-10’s nemesis, Lyon, in the Round of 16, Madrid got off to a nervy start in France, drawing one-all with Les Gones. There was still everything to play for back home, however. Would the curse strike again with The Special One in charge? Would it heck. Goals from Marcelo, ex-Lyon striker Benzema and Di María ensured Mourinho’s Madrid would sail through to the quarter-finals for the first time in seven years.

A bad tempered semi between Real and Barca. zimbio.com

Of all the teams to come up against in the 2010-11 quarter-finals, Real could not have wished for a better opponent than Tottenham Hotspur. Newcomers to the Champions League, Spurs performed credibly in the group stages, racking up 18 goals against Inter, Twente and Werder Bremen. A 1-0 victory at the San Siro against AC Milan was enough to send the North Londoners through to the quarter-finals, where a hungry, desperate, vastly more experienced Madrid side were waiting for them. Helped out immeasurably by Spurs being reduced to ten men after fifteen minutes (Crouch claimed his second yellow for a lunge on Marcelo), two headers from ex-Arsenal man Adebayor, an edge-of-the-box screamer from Di María and a sweet strike from Ronaldo all but ensured Madrid a place in the semi-final, for the first time since 2003. One wonders what the thoughts of a certain Gareth Bale, 21 years old and in the Tottenham starting line-up, were that night. The one-nil White Hart Lane score line in Madrid’s favour seems anti-climatic in comparison, but it did allow Madridistas the chance to dream. A semi-final to beat all semi-finals beckoned; Madrid would face Barca, in another Champions League El Clásico. 

What happened in 2011 can be best encapsulated in two words; ‘Pep’ and ‘Messi’. That doesn’t tell the whole story, however; this was a bad-tempered first-leg which saw Pepe and Mourinho sent off, shocking tackles and gamesmanship, and Madrid going down two-nil to their hated rivals at home. A Real side devoid of Pepe and Sergio Ramos - who had also got himself banned through picking up another yellow in the first-leg - made the journey up to Catalonia to see if they could salvage something from the fixture and keep their dream of La Décima alive. A dogged performance from Los Blancos ensued, but ultimately it wasn’t enough, and Mourniho’s men lost 3-1 on aggregate. Just to rub salt into the wound, Barca went on to claim their fourth European title at Wembley Stadium later that month.

The little monkey was off Madrid’s collective back in terms of finally getting past the Round of 16 again, but the bigger primate was still looming large. To get so close, only to lose to Barca of all teams, hurt Madrid hard. Unfortunately for The Special One, Real were to fall at the penultimate hurdle in 2011-12 and 2012-13 as well. An agonising defeat on penalties to Bayern Munich put paid to Madrid’s La Décima dreams in 2012, whilst a 4-0 humbling at the hands of Borussia Dortmund did much the same last year, sending shockwaves through the world of football as the balance of power seemed to shift from Spain to Germany (Barca were embarrassed even more by Bayern, succumbing 7-0 on aggregate in the 2013 semis, whereas Madrid restored some pride by beating Dortmund 3-0 in their second leg at the Bernabéu, almost forcing the tie into extra time). Despite the edition of players such as Özil and Modrić, and the benefit of Mourinho’s tactical nous, after three seasons of The Special One, La Décima was still just a fantasy for Madrid. Goal.com’s Ben Hayward points the finger of blame at Mourinho during these years, arguing that the Portuguese’s Madrid were always lacking an extra striker and another decent right-back. Mourinho’s fractious relationship with the Spanish press and his own players, including the dressing room spat with Casillas, obviously didn’t help matters either, particularly in 2013. The achievements Mou did actually make seem pretty impressive when put into that context. Something wasn’t quite clicking for Madrid under him, however, so whilst he fled back to his beloved Stamford Bridge with a La Liga Title, one Copa Del Rey and one Supercopa de España in hand, it was all change at the Bernabéu once again.         

The saga of summer 2013 wasn’t who would be taking over the managerial reins at Madrid; rather, it was the will he, won’t he tussle surrounding Gareth Bale. Whereas ex-Milan, Chelsea and PSG gaffer Carlo Ancelotti had penned his three-year Real deal by the end of June, the Welsh winger didn’t make his move from Spurs to Spain until 1st September. As well as completing the most expensive signing in history – Bale came with a price tag of €100m – Ancelotti also snared the services of Isco from Málaga for €24m and Asier Illarramendi from Real Sociedad for €32m. The scrutiny was turned up even higher on Los Blancos after another wave of Galáctico spending, but let’s be frank; whilst the world and its dog were eager to see whether Bale would live up to his over-inflated price tag, few people would have picked Madrid as their favourites for the Champions League at the start of the season. Mourinho had returned to Chelsea with a point to prove, Pep Guardiola was ready to make the perfect team, Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern Munich, even better, and PSG and Dortmund were waiting in the wings, ready to spoil the La Décima party. Except, of course, things went rather differently this time.

Laying waste to Galatasaray, Juve and Copenhagen in the group stage, Real then left Schalke in their wake in the Round of 16, putting paid to the ghosts of 2005-2010. A 9-2 aggregate score line in the Champions League is exceptional by anyone’s standards, and although Jens Keller’s side were poor, credit must be given to Ancelotti and his team; thrashing anyone 6-1 in their own backyard2 doesn’t happen by accident. A brace each from Benzema, Bale and Ronaldo, including some fabulous solo efforts, rendered Huntelaar’s injury time wonderstrike a consolation, and the second leg back in Madrid a mere formality. Ronaldo added to his burgeoning goals tally by bagging another double, either side of Hoogland’s deflected shot for Schalke, before Morata put the icing on the cake with a right-footed tap in from seven yards out. For the fourth time in four years, Madrid had advanced to the quarters of the Champions League, and were presented with an opportunity to exact revenge on 2013’s adversaries, Borussia Dortmund. Goals from Bale, Isco and Ronaldo – the latter the Portuguese’s 14th of the campaign, equalling arch-rival Messi’s haul the year before – gave Real one foot in the semis, but a Reus-inspired masterclass in the second leg in Germany, coupled with the absence of Ronaldo through injury, almost saw Los Blancos blow it. A second-hand show of character, some fine saves from Casillas and a missed sitter from Mkhitaryan saw Madrid go through by the skin of their teeth, with perhaps Angel di María being the most relieved person in the Westfalenstadion; on a different night he could well have been left ruing his 17th minute penalty miss, the spot-kick well saved by Dortmund keeper Weidenfeller. The result shook up Madrid, giving credence to the claims that Ancelotti’s men are really toothless tigers sans Ronaldo. Casillas commented after the game that it was good his side had received such a wake-up call; the one thing Real could not afford to be, heading into a semi-final tie against Champions League holders Bayern, was complacent.    

 

The saying revenge is a dish best served cold is trotted out regularly in football. For Pep Guardiola, bitter, sweet payback came at the hands of Real Madrid in the Champions League this season, as Ancelotti’s men humiliated in his own backyard the man who had steered their greatest rivals to such recent success, mainly at the expense of Madrid themselves. A first-leg home victory for Los Vikingos, courtesy of a 19th minute Benzema strike, still left both sides with plenty to play for at the Allianz Arena. Anyone expecting a tight, nervy game in Germany was soon proved wrong, as Madrid turned on the style and frankly made Bayern look very average. Two headers in four minutes by Real stalwart Sergio Ramos put Los Blancos 2-0 up inside 20 minutes, whilst Ronaldo scored his record-breaking 15th Champions League goal of the season, his strike perfectly set up by Bale, after a breath-taking Real Madrid break. Piling the misery on Pep and the Bundesliga Champions even further, Ronaldo claimed his 16th European goal of 2013-14 with a clever low 90th minute free-kick. For the first time in a dozen years, Real were back where they believe they belong – the Final of the Champions League. Only a certain set of noisy neighbours stood between them and the realisation of their La Décima dream.      

We all know what happened at the end of May in Lisbon; Atléti, the plucky yet bullish and incredibly worthy underdog, seemed to have both hands on the Champions League trophy despite missing their star striker Diego Costa – the Los Rojiblancos had led since the 36th minute thanks to a scrappy Godin header, the product of a rare Casillas mistake. With the seconds ebbing away and all those dreams of a tenth European title dying, Sergio Ramos took the tie into extra time with his excellent 93rd minute header from Modric’s inch-perfect corner. Even watching the highlights once again, you can’t help but cringe; Atléti had done everything right for most of the game, and seemed less overawed by the occasion than their more illustrious rivals. It’s akin to watching someone stab Bambi – the neutrals’ favourite falls at the last, defeated by their bitter cross-city foes. Clawing back hope from the jaws of despair, Madrid never looked like losing once the tie went into extra time, and after Bale’s exquisite header on 110 minutes converted the superlative Di María’s shot-cum-cross into Thibault Courtois’ net, the whole world knew La Décima had been achieved. The impressive Marcelo, one of the best Real players on the pitch since his introduction in the 59th minute, thoroughly deserved his goal eight minutes later, and not to be left out, Ronaldo scored his 17th goal of the campaign via the penalty-spot, following a dubious decision from referee Björn Kuipers. Real had rubbed salt into Atleti’s open wounds, and a 4-1 score line flattered the Madridistas. Any complaints about fairness or moral victories would fall on deaf Los Blancos ears, however. Real had done it. La Décima had been achieved.

Perhaps the biggest difference between this campaign and previous years is that there was no other team truly better than Real. In the past, Pep’s Barcelona or Heynckes’ Bayern were streets ahead of everyone else, and there were years when English clubs were either in the ascendancy, i.e. United, or just dogged enough to get through to the Final and then bloody win the thing, i.e. Chelsea. 2013-14 was the year of transitions, for Madrid as well as for everyone else. With United, Chelsea, Bayern and Barca all adjusting to new management, even if the particular faces involved were recognisable, Madrid deserve credit for adapting to their new coach’s methods quicker than most, on the European stage at least. 13-14 was not a vintage year in La Liga for Los Blancos, and that represents the next challenge for Ancelotti, only the second manager after Liverpool’s Bob Paisley to win the European Cup three times. The Italian must improve Madrid’s consistency next year, and marry up great performances in Europe with fantastic runs in the league. Interestingly, Madrid finished third in La Liga both this season, and when they last won the Champions League in 2001-02. If Ancelotti can turn third-place finishes into league titles, he really will deserve his genius tag. Nevertheless, this year’s haul of the Copa del Rey and La Décima should not be overlooked, especially as both finals saw Madrid topple their great rivals.

Real Madrid after their Copa Del Rey win.

The Ronaldo effect is the second most important reason Real won the Champions League this year; any team containing a playing who scores 17 goals in a single European campaign is obviously doing something right. The Ballon d’Or winner has just had the season of his life, is at the peak of his powers, and can win games single-handedly for Madrid, even against top-level opposition. Having their talisman fit and in form for most of the season undoubtedly powered Los Blancos on towards victory in Lisbon. Gareth Bale’s influence in big matches cannot be disregarded either. His amazing individual goal against Barca in the Copa del Rey Final was the stuff of schoolboy dreams, racing past Marc Bartra with ease and running the best part of 50 yards to then slot the ball past Pinto and score Madrid’s winner. With Ronaldo sidelined through injury in that match, Bale stepped up to the plate, and a similarly great performance was warranted in Lisbon. He may have had the services of his Portuguese teammate to help him this time around, but truth be told, until he scored his wonderful header (the way he turned his head, facing away from goal, was sublime), the Welshman had endured a pretty awful final. He could easily have had a hat-trick in normal time, missing a host of golden-edged chances and appearing like a player fully feeling the weight of one hundred million Euros hanging round his neck. In the end, it didn’t matter, and that’s what counts. Other players would get despondent after such misses; other teams would give up long before the third minute of extra time. Not Bale, and not Madrid. As Sid Lowe’s excellent Guardian article elucidates, there was a real (humour me) poignancy to Zidane running down the touchline and celebrating Bale’s winner in Lisbon three weeks ago. Unsurprisingly, Bale credits Zidane amongst his inspirations, and even told UEFA.com earlier this season how one of his earliest memories of watching football involves seeing that famous volley at Hampden Park. Dreams may not come true for everyone in football – they often don’t – and for the hoards of Atléti fans across the world, both lifelong diehards and recent converts, dreams seemed to be thin on the ground last month, despite all Diego Simeone’s side have achieved this season. Yet Bale’s fairytale ascent from footy-mad Cardiff schoolboy to being the world’s most expensive player and winning the world’s most prestigious club trophy for what is arguably the world’s biggest club proves that in this money-talks football world, dreams still have a place, and are still, occasionally, fulfilled.   

Overall, La Decima proves Madrid’s class; from Modric to Marcelo, Di Maria to Sergio Ramos, Khedira to Carvajal, the whole squad oozes sophistication and potential. Without the services of the banned Xabi Alonso in Lisbon, Real toiled and made things easy for Atleti for much of the game, but crucially stayed fighting and trying until the dying seconds, a measure of true champions if ever there was one. In many ways, the difficult path the team has traced in pursuit of La Decima since 2002 will have made the taste of victory last month all the sweeter to Madridistas. To come back from adversity, over the years and in the match itself, to dig yourselves into a hole and emerge victorious regardless is one of the true pleasures in any sport, but particularly football. Where Madrid go from here, we can only wait and see; Ancelotti has it within his power to start a new dynasty at the Bernabéu, and seeing as no side has yet retained their title since the European Cup morphed into the Champions League, Real still have plenty more to aim for.

 

1)Until 13th June 2014, when van Gaal’s Netherlands side demolished del Bosque’s World Champions 5-1 in the opening game of Group B in Salvador at the Brazil World Cup.

2)As a Man City fan, I can happily attest to this.

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