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Exiting The Twilight Zone

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The context of the ninety-two minutes during which Atlético Madrid were carefully sealing (rather prematurely) their neighbor’s coffin a nail at a time is important.

Lars Baron

The time Madrid spent at tied and losing positions represents a period that is currently vastly overshadowed by the monstrosity of the persistence and sheer tenacity that a decade+ long hunt entails (encapsulated in the powerfulness of Madrid’s extra time surge). The magician played the crowd perfectly (the question of intent though still unanswered). We watched as they sunk deeper and the timer counted down faster with each second that passed. There’s no way they could escape this. They’ve done it before and they indeed promised it but this time they’ve left it too late. Impossible. It’s the not knowing that gets you. The inability to logically deduce the path from the present to its future state strangles the soul, especially when we have a clear idea of the destination. The confusion leads to the surfacing of suppressed thoughts.

And when one’s mind begins to wander, it takes all kinds of turns. Firstly, the performance: did the team pass the test? Were they up to the mark? Beyond reproach? Ancelotti’s decision to field Khedira in Alonso’s temporarily vacated position was certainly a surprise from an external standpoint. The German had just returned from injury and showed signs (despite his otherwise impressive displays considering) of suboptimal match fitness. He wasn’t as active and not nearly as decisive in his movements against Celta Vigo and Espanyol. In addition to the rumoured Chelsea transfer target’s precarious situation, the manager had dropped significant hints major signing Illarramendi (who played very well as a holding midfielder during La Liga’s conclusive game) was in the driver seat for the starting berth in the final.

In the end, it was both Ancelotti’s safest and riskiest hand. He knew and trusted Khedira and probably favored his stability but at the same time likely foresaw the gamble of throwing a less than 100% player (in an arguably unfamiliar role) into a final against an intense and disciplined side. He got what he paid for. Khedira did not suddenly become a commanding metronome directing play and excellently supporting our attacking actions.  Nor did he provide his standard level of industry during defensive phases. But he steadied the pace when needed, built pressure where required, made few costly mistakes (the poor challenge on Godín was a unique occurrence), and created coverage advantages in build-up. In essence, Ancelotti was never planning on winning the game through that element; he simply wanted to ensure the chance of losing it from there was minimal.

Then there was Casillas' misjudgment in the first half. The captain did not properly gauge the situation and abandoned his line when there was a very low (if nonexistent) chance he would actually get the ball. It was a critical and elementary mistake that greatly affected Madrid. Almost inexcusable. But the four time CL winner had started the match impressively showing a level of composure and passing rarely associated with him. He was fairly solid throughout -- potentially betrayed by a mental lapse.

Another question was BBC’s performance. Had they satisfactorily fulfilled expectations? It was a little easier with Bale. He played an acceptable midfield support game and broke out superbly at every chance available. He participated effectively (though obviously not at di Maria’s MOTM level) but lacked with his end product. Consistently took poor shots in great positions (which he self-engineered to a large degree) never looking for variations in his final ball. The misses would have stuck without doubt but he added a lot of value beyond those specific instances on an overall scale. Benzema appeared off-color the entire duration of his stay as did Ronaldo (to a lesser degree). Both were uncharacteristically sloppy and static. Promising moves remained just that, promising. The French cat certainly did not affect the final as was necessary but still provided the best striking option on the day. Ronaldo, who did not actively lead the charge, did well to enable rather than disrupt Madrid’s game. He allowed the brightest lights to shine.

Those were some of the bigger questions among many that arose as a result of attempting to separate the cause from the effect. Had the team (some of its most vital parts) failed us as of that point? Is it hypocritical to overlook these issues? Could a miracle simply erase or change history? The answer is not black or white but silver and hollow.  The CL final was too ‘good’ a match. It was difficult to simply take in at face value. There is little doubt that every Madridista still had hope of a comeback but the complications at the time were hard to mentally navigate. The alternate reality was a touch too close. The suspense lingered for a second too long. In that extended moment of truth, the other universe flashes before your eyes. You witness the consequences of failing to prevail. You endure the pain. You feel the loss. You experience the defeat. To transition from that melancholic feeling to the emotional extreme of Ramos’ wonder goal alters one’s state of consciousness slightly.

However, after the daze subsides, it becomes clear that the alternate reality was never a possibility. The chance didn’t (or better yet -- doesn’t) exist. Madrid are 2014 European champions and that’s final. La Decima is here. It’s home.