KEIR RADNEDGE in LISBON —- Tradition is the gift which keeps giving for football, one of the greatest strengths of the sport which keeps the passion and allure transmitting down the generations. That tradition does not guarantee the script however – as Atletico de Madrid emphasised by taking nine-times winners Real to extra time in the 2014 Champions League Final before being wiped out of the night.
La Decima – the record-extending 10th European Cup – was Real’s and by 4-1 after two tension-stamped hours. But the cup had so very nearly been heading to the other end of Madrid. Atletico led 1-0 until beyond the end of the 90 minutes before a stoppage-time strike by Sergio Ramos cancelled out the advantage the Colchoneros had seized with a 36th-minute header from defender Diego Godin – their Liga title-winning hero last week in Barcelona.
So much, it seemed as the clock ran down, for Real’s dream of rounding up a history lesson in the Estadio Benfica. But then Atletico failed to defend Luka Modric’s right-wing corner, Ramos was celebrating and in extra-time Gareth Bale, Marcelo and Ronaldo struck thrice more. History beckoned in Lisbon once more.
Lisbon had been the scene of the first-ever tie of the originating European Champions Cup in the autumn of 1955 (between Sporting and Partizan Belgrade); the first non-Spanish winners had been Benfica, in whose new home this latest final was staged; to bring the final back was appropriate in the year which marked the deaths of two of Benfica’s great European Cup heroes, Eusebio and Mario Coluna.
Bringing it all up to date, Real were being led in their pursuit of the Decima by the greatest Portuguese player of his era in Cristiano Ronaldo.
Now, once again, Ronaldo was leading the favourites only this time it was Atletico de Madrid who were the dangerous outsiders in the first ever city derby to grace the Champions’ Final stage.
All the casualties from the previous weeks were fit to enter combat with the exception of Atletico’s Arda Turan and Real’s Pepe.
Diego Costa was judged recovered from a hamstring strain to partner David Villa in the Atletico attack. As for Real, Karim Benzema was also fit to lead their attack while Germany’s Sami Khedira took over in the heart of midfield from suspended Xabi Alonso and Raphael Varane deputised for Pepe in central defence.
The opening ceremony wound up the atmosphere to the point where only the football would suffice and the opening exchanges were much as expected with Madrid curling the ball around the pitch and Atletico as tight as a sealed box.
Diego Costa was at the centre of the first drama but not as he had wanted. Ten minutes sufficed for him to understand the severity of his injury and he was substituted by Adrian Lopez.
The game grew ever more scrappy now as Atletico stepped up their efforts to harass, hustle, irritate and unsettle Real in every corner of the pitch. Ronaldo and Bale began to roam in search of a centimetre of space. Benzema shuffled deeper which meant saw a number witless balls played into the box for keeper Thibaut Courtois to field unchallenged.
His first save was then from a long, low soft Ronaldo free kick after Angel Di Maria had been tripped by Raul Garcia. The Atletico man was booked for the foul, Sergio Ramos for protesting about it.
Atletico’s challenge was to maintain their phenomenal workrate. The longer the game ran on the more difficult that would be, even with coach Simeone putting in as much physical effort in the technical area as his players on the pitch.
The 33rd minute saw the first chink in that armour. Tiago pushed the ball into a space which was filled only by the onrushing Gareth Bale. His momentum took him flying onto the penalty box only then to shoot appallingly wide.
The significance of that miss was driven home three minutes later when Diego Godin – scorer of the Liga-winning goal in Barcelona – punished Real’s failure to clear a right-wing corner. Iker Casillas threw himself back to try to rescue the ball but too late. All Godin’s eight goals this term had been headers.
Ronaldo had been a massive disappointment, virtually absent from the entire first half. But, after the break and when Di Maria was fouled again, he had another free kick opportunity. This time a better effort from the World Player of the Year which took a deflection and forced Courtois into pushed it high over the bar. Real made nothing of the corner.
That forced coach Carlo Ancelotti into a double substitution, with Marcelo and Isco replacing Fabio Coentrao and Khedira.
Another indication of the increasing level of concern was Sergio Ramos charging forward. His left-wing cross invited Ronaldo to try for a header; he barely reached it – but just enough to edge it beyond Benzema at the far post.
Modric and Ronaldo offered another chance to Bale which he drove wide. Then the Welshman galloped in from the right and was again off target. By now Ancelotti was standing immobile in his technical area, arms folded, as if resigned to the fate of both his team and, probably, himself.
In possession terms it was almost all Real but their final pass choices were poor and Atletico continued to defend like demons . . . until the fourth minute of stoppage time when they failed to defend a Luka Modric corner and Ramos struck the most dramatic equaliser to keep the 60,976 crowd for a further halfhour of extra time.
Now, at last, Real looked more like themselves and fatigue began to eat away at Atletico’s resolve. Even so, they reached the midpoint in extra time still all-square.
Courtois began the second half with a sharp save to a rare shot from Modric but Real were not to be denied after Di Maria ran wondrously through on the left and Bale, with a header, was on target at long last.
Atletico, finally, had to attack. Of course they left gaps. First Marcelo punished them in the 117th minute and then so did Ronaldo from a penalty after being tripped. It was his 17th goal of the campaign. Injury had clearly hampered him. But the great players put their stamp on the big occasions and he had achieved that, as he had promised.
Victory sends Real on to Morocco for the FIFA Club World Cup in December after Bale takes them ‘home’ to Cardiff for the European Supercup against Sevilla on August 12.
Real Madrid: Casillas* – Carvajal, Varane, Sergio Ramos, Coentrao (Marcelo 59) – Modric, Khedira (Isco 59), Di Maria – Bale, Benzema (Morata 79), Ronaldo. Subs: Diego Lopez, Pepe, Arbeloa, Illarramendi. Coach: Ancelotti.
Atletico de Madrid: Courtois – Juanfran, Miranda, Godin, Filipe Luis (Alderweireld 82) – Raul Garcia (Sosa 65), Gabi*, Tiago, Koke – Diego Costa (Adrian Lopez 10), Villa. Subs: Aranzubia, Mario Suarez, Cristian Rodriguez, Diego. Coach: Simeone.
Referee: Kuipers (Hol). Attendance: 60,976.
European champions record: 10 Real Madrid; 7 Milan; 5 Bayern Munich, Liverpool; 4 Ajax, Barcelona; 3 Man Utd, Inter; 2 Benfica, Juventus, Nottm Forest, Porto