The clock ticked ever closer towards 94 minutes in the Estádio da Luz as Atletico fans anxiously awaited the final whistle. Their side, against all odds, were just seconds away from becoming Champions of Europe. On the other side of Benfica’s glorious stadium stood the Real Madrid faithful, head in hands. They were so close, and yet so far, to finally grabbing their 10th European Cup. It had eluded them for so long that their hopeful dream was slowly turning into a frustrating ambition. How long could they chase after an accolade that seemed destined to fail them? The answer to that question was realised a lot shorter than anyone in Lisbon could have imagined after Sergio Ramos, somehow, connected to a last-ditch Luka Modric corner. Real were rewarded for their never-give-up attitude, and Zinedine Zidane’s side ran rampant in extra-time to clinch Un Decima at last. Without the fighting spirit of this squad, however, it’s a search that would still be ongoing.
For one reason or another, pundits are comfortable in ignoring the achievements of this current Real side. Rarely are they mentioned in the same breath as Pep’s Barca possession masters, or Diego Simeone’s soldiers from Atletico. Yet, they’ve achieved just as much as the former, and far more than the latter. There’s no doubting the influence Simeone holds in the modern game, with his flawless defensive organisation and counter-attacking set up copied by so many, yet perfected by so few. Nor, can anyone overlook just how special that 2014 title win was for a Atleti side limited on both resources and personnel in comparison to their league rivals. They deserve every bit of the abundance of praise sent their way. But the constant raving over the lesser of the Madrid sides only multiplies the lack of which is attributed to their city counterparts.
It’s a similar story with Barcelona, who have been labelled by some as the greatest side to have ever played the sport. Several La Liga titles, and a footballing strategy inspired by Johan Cruyff, has gone a long way to increasing their football stature. And yet, when comparing their honours to the current Madrid squad, there isn’t much of a difference. Barcelona have two European Cups to their name for this decade, while they’ve grabbed first place in the Primera Division four times. For Real, it’s somewhat of a reversal in terms of the honours they’ve picked up. Both Jose Mourinho and Zidane have led them to a league title each, in a time span which has seen them triumph in three Champions League finals. They have yet to lose a knockout round since 2015, and have only lost one since 2013, when Robert Lewandowski’s superb four-goal outing eliminated them in the semi-finals. Yet, despite the comparable success of both clubs, only one of them receive continuous adoration.
Barca and Atletico have both been immense since the turn of the decade, and the praise they’ve been offered has been deserved. Real, however, continue to be overlooked. In the build-up to this year’s second round knockout tie with big-spenders Paris Saint Germain, there were very few pundits who were comfortable picking a Madrid side that had struggled for the majority of the campaign. Their league form has been poor, but continuing to underestimate a team that have constantly shone on the biggest stage is never a smart betting strategy. It would have been somewhat acceptable had the negativity towards them been attributed to their catastrophic title defense, but that isn’t the case. Doubts surrounded this team in the build-up to last year’s final in Cardiff, even as Real entered the contests having secured their status as La Liga champions. Questions were asked over the “easy” draws they had been handed, while Bayern Munich fans STILL complain about the officiating from their quarter-final tie. Truth is, you need luck to progress and succeed at the highest level. There’s no denying Real have been fortunate on a couple of occasions, but they’ve also been on the other end of the spectrum. It’s simply just the way football works. Yet, that shouldn’t overshadow the fighting spirit this side have consistently shown.
During that contest against Bayern, they found themselves trailing 1-0 in Munich until a Cristiano Ronaldo double turned the tie on its head. Having the mental ability to play through the setback of conceding first in a daunting environment is admirable. The competence they showed in fighting back to leave themselves in comfortable position heading into the second leg is even more impressive . Ronaldo struck again during the return match, after Robert Lewandowski’s penalty offered Bayern a glimmer of hope. Ronaldo’s goal didn’t change much in terms of what the opposition needed to level things up, but it switched momentum back to Madrid with 15 minutes remaining in a tense contest. Unfortunately, a fluky own-goal from Sergio Ramos just 120 seconds later left Real in a precarious situation as extra-time beckoned. Many teams finding themselves in that position would have crumbled under the pressure. In an exhausting task, they had to try and contain, arguably, the most potent offensive side in Europe for an extra thirty minutes. As Madrid have shown time and time again, however, this is no ordinary side. Instead of collapsing, they rose to the occasion and further displayed their champion mentality by storming past Bayern.
If you needed any more proof of their spirit, the semi-final meeting with Atletico should have been enough evidence. Although sitting on a 3-0 lead from the first leg, once again due to the magic of Ronaldo, a quick double salvo from Atleti in the opening fifteen minutes of the second leg left Zidane’s side sweating. One more goal from their rivals, and it would suddenly become deadlocked. The thought of 55,000 Colcheneros’ fans whistling and hissing at each movement is intimidating, but for Real, it was another challenge to overcome. Before half-time, a fine piece of skill from Karim Benzema set up the on-rushing Isco for a crucial away goal which ended the Atletico barrage and secured Real’s place in a second successive final. Another barrier crushed for a Madrid side, so used to them by this stage. Yet, there are very few who wish to offer them the credit they deserve.
And, rest assured, the three time Champions League winners have more to be concerned about than who the pundits from ESPN FC or BT Sport opt for in their pre-match predictions. But, it can still be frustrating to witness, as it points to a bigger picture. Many, if not all, favoured PSG last month before Real taught them a footballing lesson. The absence of the €222m man in Neymar did little to change their minds, but after a Zidane tactical masterclass helped Madrid to a comfortable 2-1 victory in Paris, and a 5-2 score on aggregate, there was little room to maneuver for the backtracking media. For Real, it was another scalp they could add to the list of European giants they have triumphed over in the past couple of years, as they go in search of their next one.
Even during the early days of Zizou’s reign, Real were capable of overturning deficits, somehow staying alive when their obituaries had already been written. The superb comeback against Wolfsburg in the quarter-finals, where the German side led 2-0 heading into the second leg, before surviving an Atleti onslaught in the final are stand-out moments. It’s a team which has built a character and spirit that is designed to withstand the barrages of pressure that come with their ambitious aims. It’s not enough for this side to call themselves Champions of Europe for a single year; they desperately seek to reclaim that status each season. As mentioned above, success in Europe’s premier competition comes down to good fortune at times, but it can also be decided by whichever team wants it more. When Real are around, there isn’t another outfit who are as determined as them. That has been proven in each contest since the final in Lisbon, with Juve’s victory against them in 2015 the lone exception.
In the time since Ramos’ heroics, Real have come up against an Atletico side starving for continental success, on two occasions. They’ve faced a Bayern team keen to avenge the humiliation the BBC forward line lay on them back in 2014, as well as a Paris Saint Germain outfit determined to lose the title of ‘European failures’. Considering Real were defending champions in each of these scenarios, barring the meeting with Atleti in 2016, it would have been fair to assume they wouldn’t be able to match the hunger of their eager counterparts. It’s only normal for a group of players, who have tasted as much success as Real have, to lose some of their motivation partaking in a tournament they’ve already conquered. However, this side aren’t normal. That they have outfought, and exceeded, each of these ambitious sides, is a credit to the desire they hold. The champion mentality instilled in these serial winners is unmatched by even the most desperate of opponents. It’s why Real have constantly stayed ahead of their chasing rivals.
This week’s quarter-finalists Juventus pose an interesting challenge, but it’s a match-up that is familiar for both sides. The perennial Italian champions triumphed in 2015 before Real exacted revenge last year in Cardiff. Though neither team have played at their best for long stretches of the season, their ability to turn games on their head in a short amount of time, is bound to make for a fascinating contest. Juve needed just seven minutes of magic to survive Spurs, while Real soaked up much of PSG’s attacking pressure before hitting them with two goals in three minutes during the first leg. It promises to be a thrilling tie, but with this group of players regularly coming out on top in tense contests, it’s hard to overlook them. As we’ve learnt over the last four years, you should underestimate Real at your peril.