But I feel like I’m getting old
And the songs that I sang
Echo in the distance
Like the sound
Of a spinning windmill
I guess I will always be
A soldier of fortune »
(Soldier of Fortune, Stormbringer, Deep Purple, 1974)
3 June 2017, Millenium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales.
Real Madrid lifted UEFA Champions League trophy for the second time in two years – becoming the first team to do so in the tournament’s new format. Madrid wore a dark purple kit that night. It’s already been five years since that sensational night and no one can be blamed if they feel a bit older now. On the night, the two best teams in Europe were to meet, and they did. But Real Madrid annihilated Juventus during the 90 minutes.
Before discussing the first half, I want to touch on Zinedine Zidane’s team talk at half-time. Zidane’s calmness with the press never gave us insight into his tactical philosophy to the extent that we would have liked, but this Real Madrid clip painted a picture.
For the first seven minutes of the 15-minute break, Zidane allowed his players to settle in and didn’t say a word. In the 8th minute, the dressing room became cold and silent. Zidane started his speech. His direction was clear, he urged the team to be more aggressive in defence, warned of the implications of being enthusiastic but persisted in defensive aggression. His interpretation of Juventus’ form turning into a 4-4-2 was spot on. Marcelo and Carvajal were tasked with exploiting the space left by Mario Mandžukić and Dani Alves. Isco was tasked with occupying the left flank when deemed necessary and rapid changes from left to right (and vice-versa) were emphasized.
Zidane assured: It was a final and Real Madrid were supposed to suffer. He was confident his side would score another goal in the second half and go 1-1 up. They scored three in the second half. Juventus, before that, conceded just three goals in the entire 2016-17 Champions League season.
Zidane’s team understood, prepared and implemented their reading for this game to the point. The emphasis was on vertical and horizontal compactness, moving up and down like a block and changing the game as soon as space opened up on either flank.
This first-half sequence is a perfect example of the kind of tenacity, intensity and control Real Madrid had over the proceedings:
The progression of the Madrid ball was evenly distributed between the two flanks. It’s been something elusive and hard to find in Real Madrid’s approach since that night.
The elite movement off the ball has been a key trait in the careers of Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo. But the duo were at their best in that regard that night. Benzema and Cristiano, both inherently out of place and busy coaching Juventus centre-backs. The space that opened up because of this has been used to perfection many times in this game.
The streak that led to Madrid’s first goal summed up Real Madrid’s overall dominance in this game. The counter-pressing to get the ball back, the ball advancing, the burst off the ball from Benzema to keep space open for Ronaldo until the last moment, and a regulation finish – Zidaneball was unleashed with a devastating execution.
The pressing and aggressiveness demanded by Zidane during half-time were also delivered by his players. Juventus haven’t had any room to maneuver since equalizing just before the break, even when they managed to break into Real Madrid’s penalty area.
Madrid’s third goal was another validation of their intensity when they lost the ball, the structure to win the ball back and the elite movement off the ball. This goal killed the game.
Zinedine Zidane made three attacking substitutions (Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio, Alvaro Morata) in this game as his side led 3-1. The faith he had in his team was reciprocated when Asensio scored the game’s last goal to make it 1-4.
Real Madrid scored 12 goals in the four Champions League finals played between 2014 and 2018. The team rose to a different level in the Champions League final under Carlo Ancelotti and Zidane. But the final in Cardiff remains significant for many reasons. No other Real Madrid team has shown dominance of this magnitude in the recent past in domestic and European football.