The stakes couldn’t be higher as 22 Juventus and Real Madrid players adorned the pristine Millennium Stadium pitch in Cardiff. For one team, it was a matter of making history in the most spectacular fashion. Winning the Champions League consecutively has not been done in its current format. It’s a mythical dream that Zidane and company sought to make reality on June 3rd, 2017. Rejecting the statistical evidence and odds, Los Merengues decisively marched to the final, leaving incredible sides such as Napoli, Bayern Munich, and Atletico Madrid in their wake.
Juventus were the media favourites and the neutrals’ pick for the match. The Italian champions seemed to have reached an even higher level this season — that oft-talked about level it takes to win competitions such as the Champions League. After failing to translate their incontestably impressive domestic domination into European success, the Italians acquired important pieces in order to mount a bid to right previous wrongs. The Bianconeri had lost the last four Champions League finals (including one in 2015) they took part in. Cardiff was touted as their moment of redemption.
Real Madrid had only one question. Carvajal was almost assured a starting place after reports confirmed he had regained full fitness. Bale, however, although taking part in training sessions was not 100% and Isco’s scorching form made it a difficult decision on who to start. Zidane ultimately went with the Spaniard. After experimenting with different players and formations in the knockout rounds, Allegri started the same line-up that faced off against Monaco in the second leg.
Juventus push and Madrid settle
The first moments of the match were played cautiously by both teams. More so by the team in purple as Real Madrid looked to establish positional balance against a predictably stout defense. Juventus’ five man midfield and intense containment play strongly hindered Madrid’s combination and progressive possession. Modric and Kroos played flatter than standard in order to maintain defensive security which left Isco with the burden of connection and instigation. This became very visible due to the separation between the forwards (Ronaldo, Benzema) and the rest of the team. This stale dynamic allowed Buffon’s men to control possession early on. The relative lack of pressure and static Madrid positioning gave Pjanić, Khedira, Alves, Sandro, and Dybala time and space on the ball.
Juventus also struggled to penetrate a populated and coordinated defensive unit. Despite the availability of room on the wings, they were limited to somewhat speculative attempts that naturally materialized as a result of having more of the ball. Higuain’s shot after wriggling past two players and Pjanić’s half volley from the edge of the box were the best chances of the game up to that point. They tried to correct this by gradually increasing their attacking intensity and commitment in advanced areas. Alves, particularly, aggressively marked the right wing making several dangerous interceptions. Their team as a whole shifted vertically and Bonucci, Barzagli, or Chiellini would sometimes find themselves in Real’s half.
Juventus’ gamble and Real’s deadly transition
This was an extremely risky move that hinted at Allegri’s potential gameplan. It is likely the Italians saw scoring first as a must because it would allow them to recede into a more comfortable shape and put the pressure/responsibility on Real Madrid. The reason this strategy was especially perilous was the quality of their opponent’s transition game. Madrid’s ability to quickly move the ball vertically is one of their strongest virtues — they excel and can be ruthlessly lethal in counter-attacking situations. Ronaldo’s goal in the 20th minute was proof of that. Dani Alves intercepted a Varane long ball to Marcelo and played it to Dybala with almost all but four Juventus players in Real’s half. Madrid regained the ball and efficiently exploited a stretched Juventus. Special mention goes to Kroos whose turn of pace and pass to Benzema superbly brought the whole sequence to life.
Juventus immediately (and urgently) began chasing an equalizer which put a significant amount of stress on Real. The Spanish team was in the process of adjusting into a pure counterattacking scheme when Mandžukić equalled the score with a brilliant overhead kick. Again highlighting the exposure on the wings due to the diamond’s reduced horizontal coverage, Bonucci was able to find Sandro with a sniper long ball from distance. What followed was Juventus’ players spectacularly fashioning a sublime chance from a very low probability opportunity. Real Madrid began to assert possession dominance following the equalizer as Juventus seemed sapped of their energy. Kroos-Casemiro-Modric and the fullbacks became more active attacking wise.
Real Madrid’s intensity takes over the game
This theme continued and became reinforced in the second half. In a switch of roles from early in the first half, Real Madrid became much more proactive and controlled the tempo of the match — aided by improved intensity, urgency, and pressing. Juventus, looking fatigued and lacking inspiration, couldn’t disrupt Madrid’s symphony-like ball circulation. Kroos’s instinctive releases served to maintain continuity and consistency in the flow of ball movement. The German’s innately relieving distribution to less packed locations and less marked or free players was instrumental in keeping the ball in a purposeful way. Casemiro, Modric, and Isco’s (supported by Marcelo and Carvajal) interplay and short passing disoriented Juventus as they couldn’t close down players fast/soon enough.
Almost expectantly, Real Madrid’s dominance paid dividends when they broke the deadlock through Casemiro’s thunderbolt. The ball was deflected and the shot was a very low percentage chance but it was an accurate reflection of the nature of the match at that point. Save for a few suboptimal decisions in the final third (Isco and Modric’s shots are a few examples), Madrid could have been ahead before then. The swashbuckling La Liga champions didn’t waste time capitalizing on the surprisingly favorable condition of the game. Less than three minutes after Casemiro gave Real the lead, Modric beautifully assisted Ronaldo after great work with Carvajal on the wing. Ronaldo’s deadly movement devastatingly left Juve’s defenders in the dust as he immaculately met Modric’s pass to score his second of the game. That was virtually game over. Virtually. There was still time for a sending off (Cuadrado), a plethora of chances, and a fitting Asensio goal.
Complete Real Madrid domination as evidenced by shots and expected goals. Real Madrid had 18 (five on target) to Juventus’ 9 (four on target). Although the shots on target make it appear close, the Italians conceded a number of high quality chances in the second half that their opponents simply couldn’t convert. The first half was much more even, but Juventus were forced to expend a significant amount of energy to contain Real as well as they did.
A few notes on the game
A classic Isco performance in every way. He dazzled with his excellent movement, supreme touch, and dribbling — but disappointed with subpar decision-making that hampered verticality and chance creation. This contrasts starkly to the considerateness of Kroos and Modric who inspire and breathe life into evolving plays by efficiently engaging their teammates with their passing. Speaking of Modric, if there was ever any doubt, this man, more than any other, deserves to be brought up in any conversation for best midfielder in the world. He can do anything and everything. He is a total player who provides a unique advantage to the team.
Navas had an amazing game, and although his positioning could have been better for Juventus’ goal, it should be noted that he always tries to close down shooting angles by stepping forward. That very tendency was evident when he saved Pjanić’s shot.
Lastly, Varane and Ramos deserve an enormous amount of credit for making defense not seem like an issue or area of concern for the whole match. They supported combination and controlled vertical progression with patient and precise passing, but displayed risk sensitive decision-making by constantly choosing the safe option. Their ability to cover for the fullbacks and provide individual 1v1 superiority 99% of the time was one of the keys to the win in Cardiff.