Phil Ball: Zidane's Midas touch, Simeone considers future

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Zidane has made it a hat-trick of European firsts at Real Madrid.

On the road to midnight in the San Siro, a stadium in which Real Madrid had never won in their history, Atlético Madrid’s Juanfran struck the post with his side’s fourth penalty, hit low and hard to Keylor Navas’ outstretched right hand, but angled a little too wide. The Spanish channel covering the final, Antenna 3, got themselves into quite a tizzy until Susana Guasch, employed to point out things that others on the commentary team might not notice, cooly informed the nation that Cristiano Ronaldo (walking up to take the possibly decisive penalty) had scored 27 out of the last 27 he’d taken.

Game over then – and thus it transpired. Ronaldo ran off to the left and ripped off his shirt rather messily, enabling 200 million folks to see the fabled six-pack, glowing under the Milan lights in all its fake-tan glory. Real Madrid had won their ‘undécima’ trophy (the eleventh), the first of which they won back in 1956 in Paris against Stade de Reims, a club now in the French 2nd Division. It took Real Madrid twelve years from winning their ninth (in 2002) to finally clinching the ‘décima’, but only two years more to set off on the long road to their next decimal objective. On these last two occasions they’ve defeated their neighbours Atlético, but their fans have yet to come up with the chant, ‘Can we play you every year?’

Poor Atlético. From being the villains of Spain’s piece for many years, they are suddenly everyone’s heroes, the plucky and unlucky losers. This was their third European Cup final (their second of the Champions era) and each of those occasions has been marked by bad luck, some sort of finalist’s curse that they may need to exorcise by more supernatural means if they are to ever step up to the podium. And reading the runes, the signs had been good – defeating their original 1974 nemesis, Bayern Munich, in the semi-finals, to set themselves up for a revenge mission against their noisy neighbours to win a trophy snatched from them in the final minute of the 2014 final by captain sensible, Sergio Ramos.

The runes were therefore good until the 14th minute when the same Ramos emerged from a ruck of players in the area to divert Gareth Bale’s back-header from Toni Kroos’ free kick into the net. Even worse for Atlético was the fact that Ramos looked suspiciously in an offside position, at the precise moment that Bale’s pony-tail connected with the ball. There seemed to be some doubt among the Spanish commentary team as to whether Ramos had actually touched it (therefore validating what would have been Bale’s goal) but anyway, the goal stood and Ramos’ name remained on it. Madrid were looking very good indeed in that first 25 minutes, playing Atlético at their own game by pressuring them hard in their own half and playing a swift and decisive passing game, with Bale at the heart of everything and Atlético looked uncharacteristically wobbly – but you knew they’d come back into the reckoning. They’re that kind of team.

The tide began to turn around the 25th minute, when Antoine Griezmann began to find space by lurking in the space between Casemiro – who up to that point had been dictating play but higher up them usual – and Ramos and Pepe. Casemiro, in many ways the player who has transformed Madrid’s season, was singled out pre-match by Diego Simeone as the player who was their greatest threat, more so than the BBC. It was an interesting point to make, but the problem is that you cannot really stop a central ‘pivote’ from playing, which is precisely why Sergio Busquets has determined La Liga’s destiny for so many seasons now. You can’t stop Casemiro from playing, as such, but what you can do is to calm the game down to the extent that your own ‘pivots’ begin to control the pace and rhythm of the encounter. This depends on a lot of factors, but Greizmann’s sneaky positional sense and Fernando Torres’ work-rate finally enabled Gabi and Koke to start running a game that had looked to be veering out of their control.

Simeone brought on Yannick Carrasco for the second half and when Dani Carvajal went off injured in the 51st minute, Atlético’s evening seemed to be brightening. Substitute Danilo, much improved from his early-season self, nevertheless took a while to acclimatise to the occasion, during which time Carrasco began to enjoy himself. Even after Griezmann’s missed penalty – (and did Torres foul Pepe or Pepe foul Torres?) you got the feeling that Atlético were going to equalise, and when they did – Carrasco belting in Juanfran’s excellent centre from the right – there only looked to be one winner. This fascinating and intense encounter had swung Atlético’s way for several reasons, and although Zinedine Zidane is once again the apparent architect of the victory, the two substitutions he made during the second half were rather questionable. Karim Benzema was doing just fine, and Cristiano Ronaldo was looking dead on his feet when the coach decided to bring on Lucas Vasquez (who played well, nevertheless), and five minutes earlier he had replaced the excellent Toni Kroos (who always plays better alongside Casemiro) with the more inventive but less physical Isco. They seemed like odd decisions, and indeed the sudden absence of Kroos from the higher end of midfield enabled Atlético to look much more dangerous, with Carrasco rampant.

Real Madrid survived, but with no subs left, the extra-time period looked like meat and drink to the famous boot-camp specialists Atlético. As the players prepared for extra time, the ex-Madrid player Guti, now subdued, muttered quietly ‘There’s only one winner now. I can’t see us lasting’, the word ‘us’ (nosotros) creeping from his vocal chords for the first time in the long evening. He needn’t have worried. Neither side seemed to have the stomach for the extra half-hour, and Atlético seemed equally drained, despite the introduction of Thomas Partey and Lucas Hernandez. It went to penalties and the rest, as they say…

And so, you could argue that Real Madrid still haven’t won a game in the San Siro, technically speaking, but their season has ended on a high that no-one could have been expecting, in the final dark days of the short-lived Benitez regime. The Champions League is Real Madrid’s particular fetish, and in many ways it can compensate for other failures. Their performance in the league, however, was far from poor in the end, and had it not been for Cheryshev-Gate, they might have had a stab at the King’s Cup as well. The decision to promote Zidane from the reserve side Castilla to the big job now looks wholly justified, if for nothing more than the obvious happiness factor bouncing around the Bernabéu walls. It can make a big difference to the way footballers play. Zidane now holds the distinction of winning the trophy in his first year as a player for Madrid, winning it in his first year as deputy coach, and completing the hat-trick this season as the commander-in-chief. The only thing that could have possibly gone wrong in the 24 hours after the victory was that Sergio Ramos might have dropped the trophy from the open-air bus again, but this time he managed to hang on. The squad made their way to the Cibeles fountain at 8 o’clock in the morning, having flown back in the small hours from Milan. Though the Spanish are not famed for their early-morning appearances, an impressive number of fans had turned out to greet them.

The pro-Madrid press was exultant on Sunday morning, with Marca’s headline proclaiming ‘Gloria Interminable’ (you can translate that, come on) whilst the Catalan press preferred to dwell on other matters. Both ‘Sport’ and ‘El Mundo Deportivo’ led with the headline ‘Pena Máxima’ – a pun on the maximum pain being experienced by Atlético and the other meaning of the word ‘pena’ which is ‘a shame’ – the Catalan press questioning the legality of Ramos’ goal and emphasising the alleged superiority of Atlético – as if they really cared about Simeone’s team (they don’t). On neither of the covers was a white shirt visible, but all’s fair in love, war and football. It wasn’t quite as barefaced a cover as ‘Luis Enrique takes his dog for a walk’ but it wasn’t far off.
There will be consequences. Zidane has had a great start, but will now be expected to maintain it. Isco may depart for other shores and make way for an interesting summer signing. Meanwhile, a glum Simeone implied in the post-match press conference that he would have to ‘reflect’ on whether he would stay at the Calderón, but it might have just been a grumpy moment. He has utterly transformed the club, and should be begged to stay on bended knee, but he is coveted now by various clubs and may well be tempted to further decorate his CV. As Lord Asquith said, ‘Wait and see’. Whatever – it’s been a great season for Spanish football, and may it continue into June!

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