How do you explain it? What magic did they conjure up this time? What sorcery is this? Those questions have been asked countless times during this Champions League season and they will be asked again after this final. Real Madrid, the undisputed emperors of football on this continent lifted the European Cup for the fourteenth time in their history in Paris, once the clouds of pepper spray had lifted outside the Stade de France.
This time was a bit different, though. No great comeback was required. There was no quick burst of Madrid goals from nothing. No truly historic moment happened in a final that was more forgettable than the rounds that have preceded it. Instead, Madrid sat in, soaked up pressure and took their chance when it came, successfully trading on the underdog status that the biggest club in the world has embraced throughout this remarkable run.
The individual battle that most expected to be decisive was decisive, though not in the way that was predicted. It was not a case of Vincius Junior exploiting the space in behind Trent Alexander-Arnold as much as lurking in the space directly off his left shoulder. “I always feel I can see things others can’t see,” the Liverpool right-back claimed in an interview ahead of this final. He did not see Vinicius.
It was Madrid’s first shot on target and came only shortly before the hour mark. They had required Thibaut Courtois to remind the watching world why he remains one of its best goalkeepers and would do so again. “When Real Madrid is in a final they win it,” he said on the eve of this game. This is now the eighth consecutive final they have won in this competition, a run stretching back to 1981 and a defeat to Liverpool in Paris.
Courtois’s man-of-the-match performance, more than Vinicius’s movement or Alexander-Arnold’s momentary lapse, is the reason why that run extended and there was no repeat of 1981. The final shot count, when all was said and done, was an extraordinary 24 for Liverpool to Madrid’s three. Courtois stopped nine of those Liverpool attempts directly, the most by any goalkeeper in a Champions League final in 18 years.
None were more vital than the tip of a Sadio Mané shot onto the post early on. None were more impressive than the sprawling dive to deny Mohamed Salah, as Liverpool desperately searched for a way back in. By the sheer weight of their pressure and pot-shots on Courtois’s goal, they should really have found the equaliser they desired. And yet at the same time, they were short on truly clear-cut opportunities, even during a first half which went entirely to expectation.
Liverpool were the better side then but Madrid, in a single moment, posed the greatest danger. The length of the VAR check that followed Karim Benzema’s disallowed goal – some three minutes in all – felt disproportionate until the explanation for the decision emerged and the debate over it lasted five times as long and took up the entirety of the interval. Ironically, Fabinho completed all 49 of the passes he made in the first half. All the deliberate ones, that is.
Otherwise, Madrid were not in the first half. The award of a corner in the 36th-minute brought waves of celebration at the end of the Stade de France that was a bank of feverish white. They were watching a performance that was more akin to a side fighting for their own survival rather than the opportunity to be champions of Europe, the type of side that Liverpool typically dispatched with ease on their way to a 92-point league campaign. But they were still alive, you see. And with each opportunity that went begging, each wave of attack that they survived, they were closer to what increasingly felt like their destiny.
That sense of destiny has been consistent throughout this run, despite Madrid turning their status and history on its head, acting and playing like plucky upstarts rather than European football’s most dominant force. Part of that is down to Carlo Ancelotti who, in his wisdom, realised the limitations as well as the strengths among his squad and tailored their style of play accordingly.
Ancelotti’s reward is to become the most successful manager in Champions League history, surpassing Zinedine Zidane and Bob Paisley. And despite being outplayed across practically all four of their knockout ties, it is hard not to conclude that it is deserved. A practical, pragmatic approach to extract the best from what is still one of the best teams in Europe succeeded, earning the luck they got along the way. There is no magic, no sorcery, no secret guiding force. When there is a European Cup final to win, there is only Real Madrid.