Sunday, 25 May 2014

La Decima

59th European Cup Final, Estadio da Luz – Lisbon; Atletico Madrid 1 Real Madrid 4 (After Extra Time)

They do say that history repeats itself, once as tragedy and then as farce.  History certainly repeated itself tonight as Atletico fans turned the clock right back to 1974.  Now as then they were leading going into the final moments of the tie only for their opponents to equalize.  The difference from then is that Atletico’s collapse happened in the space of ten extra time minutes rather than in a replay.

Up until Sergio Ramos late late equaliser in normal time, Atletico had superbly marshalled Real’s attacks.  When Real did pierce Atletico’s defence, they were wasteful. Gareth Bale was the most wasteful, spurning three chances in normal time.  Bale wasn’t the only culprit, Benzema and Ronaldo struggled to get into the game during normal time but had limited success even when Atletico dropped out of the game in the last ten minutes.

Atletico had the best of a tight first half.  They started with Diego Costa, but that backfired as he had to be taken off after 9 minutes.  This meant that Atletico had to change shape to 4-4-1-1 as Adrian Lopez came on. Atletico’s pressing pushed Ronaldo & Bale further up the pitch as both struggled to get into the game.  Bale’s first fluffed chance, and the first chance of the match, came just after the half hour when he latched on to a missed pass from Tiago, jinked into the box and screwed his shot wide. 

Just after that Atletico scored.  An Atletico corner was cleared by Real, and then hooked back in.  Diego Godin’s looped header flew over Castillas and into the net – it was well over the line before Castilas clawed the ball out.  At half time, you would have thought that Atletico would have simply shut up shop.  Not a bit of it as they started the second half brightly – possibly this was down to a change in formation to 4-2-3-1.

The start of the turnaround for real came with the double substitution of Contraeo and Khedira for Marcello and Isco.  Real’s fresh legs in midfield allied to the tiring legs of Koke, Gabi and Raul Garcia tipped the balance of the game.  From here on in Atletico were pressed further and further back, and more and more chances came Real’s way.  A Ramos cross failed to connect with Ronaldo, Isco dragged a shot wide before Bale’s second miss – a Ronaldo lay off was shot wide.  His third miss came moments later when he fluffed his shot wide when maybe he should have squared the ball.

The last 10 minutes saw Real lay siege to Atletico’s goal in a desperate search for a leveller, with Atletico equally desperate to keep Real out.  With two minutes of the additional 5 minutes stoppage time remaining, Real got the breakthrough when a corner was met by Ramos (below), who headed the ball into the bottom corner of Atletico’s corner and just beyond keeper Courtois.

If Atletico were just clinging on for most of extra time, Real’s second goal – 10 minutes from the end of extra time – had the effect of draining any residual energy from Atletico’s legs.  Angel Di Maria – who was with Ramos the only Real player to perform in the match – went on a run down the Real left.  He cut inside two defenders and tried to slide the ball past Courtois.  The keeper made the save, but the ball looped up and was headed in to an empty net by Gareth Bale.
As Atletico tried to go forward for an equaliser, threy left space for Real to counter.  And they did.  Number three came when Marcello drove forward and shot low and hard and could only be parried into goal by the keeper.  The fourth came when Gabi tripped Ronaldo, who dusted himself down and took the resulting penalty.  The scoreline was as much of a reflection on the game as Ronaldo’s reaction to scoring the fourth in an already decided match.

For Atletico, maybe this is the beginning of the end of this cycle for them.  They will lose Costa during the summer, whether Courtois returns to Chelsea remains to be seen.  Whether they recover quickly will depend on whether they can keep their manager Simeone and as many of the other players as they can.

For Real the victory means that they have now claimed the fabled “La Decima” – the tenth triumph.  It was a strange triumph for them though.  They were clearly second best for much of the match, and only got going when changes were made to midfield.  It’s also difficult to place exactly where and how good this side is.  They have been good enough to be semi-finalists for the past four years, but not been good enough to get further until this year. 

With Barcelona not at the peak they were four years ago, and Bayern Munich still adjusting to life under Guardiola, Real’s chance has come.  Whether they can take advantage and re-enforce their new found place at the top of European Football remains to be seen. This victory does feel more like their victories in 2000 & 2002 (where they were among the best sides a Europe without there being a dominant team) than their 1998 victory (where they found themselves in the final despite not being one of the fancied teams and up against the team to beat at that time, Juventus).  We thought that Bayern would replace Barcelona as Europe’s dominant team.  Instead it’s Real’s consistency over the past 4 years that has paid dividends.

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