Real Madrid beat Liverpool in the Champions League final on Saturday, making sure they became the owners of the crown of European football for the 14th time in their incredible history. It’s a perfect ending to what can only be described as a fantastic season for Los Blancos.
Masters of the knockouts
This season’s Spanish Super Cup tournament was controversially held in Saudi Arabia. In the semifinals, Real faced their arch-rivals Barcelona and emerged victorious after a difficult contest which needed an extra half an hour to be settled. Vinicius Junior broke the deadlock for Carlo Ancelotti’s men halfway through the first half, but Luuk de Jong pulled them back a few minutes before the break. Karim Benzema restored Real’s lead in the 72nd minute, but only to see the score leveled again in the 83rd, this time by Ansu Fati. It eventually took an extra-time hit from Fede Valverde to seal the victory.
It was slightly less intense in the final when they went two goals up through Luka Modric and Benzema before the hour mark, and even though Eder Militao picked up a red card with three minutes to go, it was obviously too late for Athletic Bilbao to get back into the contest. The first trophy of the season was in the bag.
Unfortunately for the Real supporters, Bilbao got their revenge by knocking their team out of the Copa Del Rey in the quarterfinals, and that has turned out to be the only competition they’ve been beaten to as eventually Real Betis emerged triumphant.
But the things Real have done in the Champions League have been unreal. They were comprehensively outplayed in the first leg of the round of 16 clash against Paris Saint-Germain in Paris, in which their transfer target Kylian Mbappe struck. They were down again in the second leg again with Mbappe on target once more and there seemed to be no way back, but the amazing Benzema later responded with a hat-trick to send his team through.
Having lost the first leg of the quarterfinals at home to Real by 1-3, Chelsea believed they would be making their own history again when Mason Mount, Antonio Rudiger and Timo Werner had them 0-3 up at the Santiago Bernabeu, but Real proved once more that they were the ones to write fantastic stories this term, and not their opponents. Rodrygo scored in the 86th minute to send the tie into extra-time, and then Benzema struck again, doing just enough to see Real reach the semis.
There they were to face Manchester City. The Premier League champions have been their downfall twice in the last two years in this competition, and Pep Guardiola’s team was once more at the peak of their powers as they welcomed Real to the Etihad. But it was the PSG clash all over again as City dominated 95% of the 180 minutes of the two legs, but having won the first by just one goal and taken the lead in the second, they saw Rodrygo score twice in the final minute and got dragged into extra-time. Once there, it was inevitable for Benzema to settle the matter once again.
Real were outplayed by Liverpool in the final too, looking at the whole match from the first to the final whistle. But once again they did what they had to to stay in the contest, with Thibaut Courtois making impossible saves look very easy, and hit back the only way they could – through counterattack. Eventually, one such moment saw Vinicius divert a low powerful cross from Valverde past Alisson Becker and into the net from close range, and it was enough to seal the trophy.
These comebacks and pieces of magic which saw Ancelotti’s men beat teams apparently superior in overall quality, one after another, are an absolute proof of the winning mentality installed in this team through the successes in this particular competition over the last decade. This is now the fifth Champions League trophy for several players – Benzema, Modric, Kroos, Carvajal, as well as some that barely played in recent weeks, such as club captain Marcelo, Gareth Bale or Isco.
Real haven’t exactly dominated the Spanish top flight, nearly as much as the Champions League, in recent years. Even Atletico Madrid beat them to it twice, but it must’ve been extremely painful for their supporters to see Barcelona be crowned champions eight times since 2008-09.
Nonetheless, with the Catalans hit heavily by financial problems compounded by questionable player recruitment, the two Madrid teams have made sure the trophy is now kept in the capital ever since Real won it in 2019-20. And this season, they’ve managed to place it on the shelf next to the Champions League one once more. In fact, Real finished the league campaign 13 points ahead of Barcelona in second place.
There were, of course, bumps and bruises along the way, not least when Barcelona annihilated them at the Camp Nou as Xavi Hernandez began his revolution there, but none of their rivals proved consistent enough to present a proper challenge through the season.
Two names stand out as the main contributors to everything Real Madrid have achieved this season. One of them is, of course Karim Benzema.
At the age of 34, the brilliant Frenchman scored 44 goals in 46 appearances across all competitions in 2021-22, and he obviously remains one of the best attacking players in the world right now, despite his age, despite the presence of players like Robert Lewandowski and Mohamed Salah in the game, and despite the emergence of young superstars like Mbappe and Erling Haaland.
The significance of some his goals, particularly in the Champions League, can hardly be exaggerated, but the success achieved in UEFA’s elite competition would still be hardly imaginable without Thibaut Courtois between the posts.
The sheer number of saves the Belgium international made is formidable, let alone the fact that a large number of them were above the levels of many others in his trade – clear-cut chances that left the opposing attackers frustrated. Just in the final, he denied Liverpool nine times, leaving Salah and Sadio Mane wondering how on earth they didn’t score.
Kroos and Modric obviously must be mentioned here as well. Their superb creativity, highlighted by frequent pin-point passes, as well as reliability on the ball under pressure, is absolutely admirable. And quite apart from the obvious football qualities they posses, their consistent calmness and confidence simply oozes across the rest of the team, making the likes of Casemiro, Dani Carvajal, Eder Militao, Ferland Mendy, Vinicius, Rodrygo and Marco Asensio, perform to the absolute best their talent can give.
Real Madrid have been the most successful club in the Champions League for a long time. AC Milan are still in second place with “only” seven trophies to their name. But this particular triumph, sealed with the victory over Liverpool on Saturday, has made Carlo Ancelotti the most successful manager of all time.
With his fourth triumph, the experienced Italian tactician has now pulled away from Liverpool’s own Bob Paisley and Real’s own Zinedine Zidane, both of whom were winners of the European Cup/Champions League three times.
And that’s not the only record Ancelotti has broken this season. The La Liga title Real added to their immense collection last month means he’s now the only coach in the history of the game who has won the title in all of Europe’s top five leagues, having done so with AC Milan in Italy, with Chelsea in England, with PSG in France, and with Bayern Munich in Germany.
The debates about the best coach ever will always be pointless. What exactly constitutes the best ever? Is it the number of trophies overall? Or perhaps the diversity of the trophies won? Is it the ability to take a club with severe problems and take them off a downward road right to the stars? Is it the ability to create generation after generation of brilliant winning teams over a long period of time? Is it the ability to take an underdog team and make the biggest, richest ones tremble at their feet?
Some will say the football Pep Guardiola has instilled in his teams makes him the best. There are those who feel the endurance of Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, spanning 26 years with 13 Premier League titles, two Champions League trophies and another two finals make him the greatest. Some will point to Klopp and say, here’s a coach who took Mainz from a second tier to playing European football, who won the Bundesliga twice with Borussia Dortmund and remains the last coach to have had his team dethrone Bayern in Germany, who took Liverpool on the verge of despair and won the Champions League and the Premier League with them. There are those who’ll point to the fact that nobody in living memory but Zinedine Zidane won the Champions League three times in a row.
All those points are perfectly valid and everyone will have their own views and opinions, but the name of Carlo Ancelotti simply must be in that conversation as well.
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