x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Real Madrid’s decima was worth the lengthy wait ... and the cost

It was fitting that Gareth Bale, the world's costliest player, delivered the key goal in victory over Atletico Madrid.

Juanfran and Gabi of  Atletico de Madrid close down Karim Benzema of Real Madrid during the Uefa Champions League Final between Real Madrid and Atletico de Madrid at Estadio da Luz on May 24, 2014 in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo by Lars Baron / Getty Images
Juanfran and Gabi of Atletico de Madrid close down Karim Benzema of Real Madrid during the Uefa Champions League Final between Real Madrid and Atletico de Madrid at Estadio da Luz on May 24, 2014 in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo by Lars Baron / Getty Images

It took a dozen years and about €1 billion in transfer fees alone to realise the dream. La decima. The tenth. That long-desired Champions League trophy that puts Real Madrid in uncharted territory.

It only took Real five years to win their first five European Cups. The next five have taken another 54. They had the years when their campaigns invariably ended in the last 16. Then came the triptych of semi-finals under Jose Mourinho. Apart from the 32-year wait for their seventh, this had been the biggest delay serial winners have encountered. The most expensive, too.

The most costly players in football history delivered the decima. It was Gareth Bale’s stated aim when he arrived and, while he was playing to the crowd then, he was true to his word. An evening of wayward shooting culminated in an agile, accurate header after a searing run from Angel di Maria, the most penetrative player on the pitch.

After Marcelo added a third, Cristiano Ronaldo, Bale’s predecessor as the record-breaker, won and scored a 120th-minute penalty. An evening of personal frustration ended in jubilation and, having arrived at the Estadio da Luz with a diamond-encrusted rucksack, he departed with silverware, Real’s medallion man has brought goals and golden moments alike.

Real being Real, the players overshadow the manager. That is the way at a club where the cult of the galactico remains. And yet it was an historic occasion for the man in the dugout.

The cameras were drawn to Diego Simeone, Atletico Madrid’s firecracker of a coach. A few yards away, the understated Carlo Ancelotti attracted less attention, but Real’s comeback means he is in elite company. He has joined Liverpool’s Bob Paisley on the pedestal. They are the only managers to win the most coveted club trophy of all three times. The amenable Italian and the unassuming Englishman have succeeded where more outspoken managers have failed.

In the process, and besides probably saving his job, he spared Real embarrassment. Now Atletico’s achievement in winning the Primera Liga, immense as it is, becomes a sideshow on the European stage. Real lost the domestic battle and won the continental war. At times, this certainly was attritional. Atletico unsettled Real. They hassled and harried their aristocratic neighbours, their blue-collar work ethic taking them to the brink of an incredible double.

Instead, it was an unfortunate action replay for Atletico: they were on course to win the 1974 European Cup final until another very late equaliser from a defender, Bayern Munich’s Georg Schwarzenbeck. Then history repeated itself. Sergio Ramos headed in Luka Modric’s 93rd-minute corner; Simeone was seemingly still annoyed at the amount of added time when he self-destructed and was sent off half an hour later.

Atletico’s rough-and-ready version of a galactico had departed long before. When the teamsheets began, it appeared time to marvel at the recuperative powers of Diego Costa; seven days after it seemed his season were ended by a hamstring injury, the striker started. In a late-blooming career that has seen him represent both Brazil and Spain, he has become a stranger to the norm but, if his appearance defied medical orthodoxy, there was something sadly logical about his ninth-minute exit.

If no side is better equipped to lose a marquee player than Atletico, whose entire season has been a triumph of teamwork, and they prospered until the end of regulation time. Then their undoing came in particularly uncharacteristic fashion: Atletico, the set-piece specialists, the defensive experts, conceded to a corner.

Real’s recovery brought relief for Iker Casillas. The Bernabeu icon was culpable for Diego Godin’s opener. The sole survivor of the 2000 and 2002 triumphs went on to lift club football’s most coveted trophy. Real’s tenth triumph was his third. Atletico, agonisingly close to a first in 1974 and 2014, remain without one.

It was so cruel for them, so cathartic for Real.

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