Champions League: Cristiano Ronaldo's appetite, Zinedine Zidane's genius make Real Madrid peerless

"I'm very happy. It was an amazing season again. We won trophies. I scored twice and once again I'm top scorer in the Champions League. It's one of the best moments in my career. I have the opportunity to say that every year. But it's true.

"Now I have two or three days off to rest and after we have a (World Cup) qualifying game for Portugal and we have the Confederations Cup.

"It's a long season, but I'm motivated, I'm happy. I'm in a good moment. My age is just a number. I feel like a young boy." Real Madrid's perennial hero, Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored his 600th career goal while also becoming the first player in history to score in three Champions League finals, and finish as the top scorer of the competition for a record sixth time with a brace against Juventus in Cardiff, sounded like a man obsessed with success.

Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane (L) with Cristiano Ronaldo (R). AFP

Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane (L) with Cristiano Ronaldo (R). AFP

For a while as he uttered those words, it seemed that his insatiable appetite for success was finally fulfilled, but as he ended, he gave away the cue of his greatness. Just minutes after achieving perhaps his greatest ever triumph, he had already turned his attention to the Confederations Cup which his Portugal side enter as European champions, but once again not as favourites. Their captain's exploits on Saturday night could change all that. If it didn't, the Portuguese will have a new frontier to conquer.

"I think people don't have words to criticise, because the numbers don't lie," he told reporters after receiving the man-of-the-match award in a Champions League final at last. This season for the Portuguese has been all about personifying perfection. Few would disagree as his tally of 41 goals this season is some way short of his regular hauls of 51, 61, 51, 55, 60 and 53 goals in his last six campaigns, but it's the ten goals in the knockout stage of the Champions League this season that are worth their weight in gold.

If any, his impact in the biggest of matches was one thing that held back critics from handing him the all-time great status. But even that's been put to bed now. Since being introduced to world football as a young fashionable footballer, Ronaldo has achieved legendary status, but his relentless pursuit of excellence isn't anywhere near it's end. Real Madrid and Portugal fans will hope it never does.

Ronaldo is a footballer of unique abilities. A player possessing unparalleled skill sets. While that remains a matter of debate, his desire to always reign on the pedestal is unrivaled. It's this hunger to be ahead of the pack that's been at the heart of the Zinedine Zidane-led Real Madrid revolution. The French manager, who took up the reigns of Los Blancos last season, knew he had a player in his thirties whose physical attributes that made him the player he was were waning. Yet he's built the team around Ronaldo and got the best out the player and the team.

Zidane banked on Ronaldo's hunger for personal and collective glory to overcome his physical slowdown. It needed both work and wit. While the former came as a part of the Ronaldo package, the latter was one thing that Zidane had based his entire playing career on. The combination was lethal, and the results showed that. Real Madrid, only for the second time in their history and for the first time in 59 years, won La Liga and Champions League in the same season.

The Frenchman who received an injured Ronaldo at the start of the season, realised he had to use him wisely. Too often in the last few years, Ronaldo had fizzled out at the business end of the season, perhaps led to him struggling in the games that matter the most. The Portuguese also isn't as quick as before, and Zidane took all that into account.

One thing that his age hadn't affected was his ability to finish. The Frenchman played him more centrally, almost like a No 9 and reaped huge rewards. It wasn't an easy shift, but Zidane knew if there was anyone who could make the adjustment, it would be Ronaldo. Champions like Ronaldo love challenges. His transition was almost seamless. The Portuguese might not have been able to improve on his goal tally, having played lesser numbers of games this season, but Zidane ensured his goals had more value.

With Ronaldo up front, Real Madrid could thrash teams even with chances coming at a premium. The second leg of their quarter-final against Bayern Munich was a classic case. It was a rare occasion when Real's midfield trio of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro were outrun and outthought. Even then, the Madrid outfit ran out comfortable 4-2 winners on the night.

Another alteration which Zidane oversaw last season was the midfield. Earlier, Real often went in with a midfield duo of Modric and Kroos, but were found wanting against the bigger sides who at times overran them in the midfield. The Frenchman made two inspiring changes. First was the addition of Casemiro, the chief destroyer, and secondly Isco, the midfield floater. While the Brazilian added the much-needed balance to the midfield, Isco made Real's new system tick. He linked the midfield to Karim Benzema and Ronaldo who cleverly exchanged their roles during matches to keep the defences guessing.

That allowed Modric and Kroos to control the tempo of matches, and that's where Real Madrid stood out in the end. Against Juventus, Zidane's men were pegged back by a quick start from the Italians. Gonzalo Higuain and Miralem Pjanic both had shots on Los Blancos goal in the opening exchanges. Real made sure they had men back to weather the early storm before slowly gaining control of the game.

Once they seized the initiative and got Ronaldo involved, it was just a matter of time before they grabbed the lead. Mario Mandzukic's stunning equaliser once again pushed them back, but Real managed to just up the ante after half-time and Juventus just couldn't live with them. Real's midfield diamond ran the show, and had too much class for The Old Lady.

This Real Madrid side, who are the first team to defend the title in the Champions League era, isn't always as dominant as some of the best sides that have played in this era have been, but perhaps are among the most effective sides. Real, which once relied heavily on individual brilliance, is now a well-knit unit that plays with great intelligence perfectly reflecting their manager.

Zidane never had Ronaldo's pace and guile, neither was he as nimble-footed as Lionel Messi, yet he achieved almost as much as these two. It was his footballing brain that set him apart and continues to do so. Eleven years after his retirement we've seen that genius at work again, this time through the team he coaches.

Real under Zidane's management are already immortal in the history books, and they have only just started. With Ronaldo's appetite for excellence combining with Zidane's genius one wonders how far this team can stretch imaginations. For a football fan though, the time can't be more exciting.

Updated Date: Jun 04, 2017 15:25 PM

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