“But I feel I’m growing older
And the songs that I have sung
Echo in the distance
Like the sound
Of a windmill going round
I guess I’ll always be
A soldier of fortune”
(Soldier of Fortune, Stormbringer, Deep Purple, 1974)
June 3, 2017, Millenium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales.
Real Madrid lifted the 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 deep purple kit that night. It’s already been five years since that sensational night and one cannot be blamed if they feel a bit older now. On the night, the two finest teams in Europe were supposed to meet, and they did. But Real Madrid obliterated Juventus over the course of the 90 minutes.
Before discussing the first half, I want to bring up Zinedine Zidane’s half-time team talk. Zidane’s quietness with the press never gave us a glimpse into his tactical philosophy to the extent that we would have liked, but this clip from Real Madrid painted a picture.
For the first seven minutes of the 15-minute break, Zidane allowed his players to settle in and didn’t speak 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 defense, warned about the implications of going gung-ho but persisted in defensive aggression. His interpretation of Juventus’ shape morphing into a 4-4-2 was spot on. Marcelo and Carvajal were directed to exploit the space left behind by Mario Mandžukić and Dani Alves. Isco was instructed to occupy the left flank when deemed necessary and the quick switches from left to right (and vice-versa) were emphasized.
Zidane assured: It was a final and Real Madrid were meant to suffer. He was confident his team would score another goal in the second half and go ahead from 1-1. They scored three in the second half. Juventus, prior to that, had conceded only three goals during the entire Champions League season of 2016-17.
Zidane’s team understood, prepared, and implemented his reading for this game to the dot. The focus was on vertical and horizontal compactness, moving up and down as a block and switching play 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:
Madrid’s ball progression was uniformly distributed among the two flanks. This has been something elusive and difficult to find in Real Madrid’s approach since that night.
The elite off-the-ball movement has been a key trait in the careers of Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo. But the duo were at their brilliant best in this regard on this night. Benzema and Cristiano, both inherently moved and occupied positions to drag the Juventus center-backs. The space that opened up due to this was used to perfection on numerous occasions in this game.
The sequence that led to Madrid’s opening goal encapsulated Real Madrid’s overall dominance in this fixture. The counter-pressing to win the ball back, the progression of the ball, Benzema’s off-the-ball brilliance to keep space open for Ronaldo until the last moment, and a regulation finish - Zidaneball was unleashed with devastating execution.
The pressing and the aggressiveness Zidane demanded during the half-time break were also delivered by his players. Juventus were not given any breathing room since their equalizer just before the break, even when they managed to get inside Real Madrid’s penalty area.
Madrid’s third goal was another validation of their intensity when they lost the ball, the structure to retrieve the ball, and elite off-the-ball movement. This goal killed the game.
Zinedine Zidane made three attacking substitutions (Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio, Alvaro Morata) in this game when his team was leading by 3-1. The confidence he had in his team was reciprocated when Asensio scored the final goal of the game as he made it 1-4.
Real Madrid scored 12 goals in the four Champions League finals they played between 2014 and 2018. The team elevated to a different level in the Champions League finals under Carlo Ancelotti and Zidane. But the final in Cardiff remains significant for many reasons. No other Real Madrid side has shown the dominance of this magnitude in the recent past in domestic and European football.