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Champions League: Zinedine Zidane's tactically-flexible Real Madrid display fortitude under pressure to claim 13th title

Unlike many historic ruptures, Real Madrid’s three-peat imposed its significance upon us even as it played out. It clawed at you, fangs out, directing your attention towards the unprecedented ground it was breaking. If there was to be a slip-up, that was reserved for their opponents. Madrid instead reserved their best for key moments, a team built by their response to unfavourable situations. This may not be a side which will be lauded in the future but it certainly stands regally over the present.

Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane (R), French forward Karim Benzema (C) and Cristiano Ronaldo (L) celebrate after winning the UEFA Champions League title in Kiev. AFP

Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane (R), French forward Karim Benzema (C) and Cristiano Ronaldo (L) celebrate after winning the UEFA Champions League title in Kiev. AFP

On Saturday, Madrid earned a victory which summed up their journey to the summit not scaled for the past 42 years. Even before Loris Karius parted the ground and tumbled into the crevice, Zinedine Zidane’s side had shown why they belong to the grandest of stages. Their mastery is unparalleled at the moment, sneaking victory into view when survival must be the overriding motive.

Madrid had wobbled along in the first half hour before captain Sergio Ramos, like he inevitably does, made a crucial intervention. This was no last-minute equaliser but it was no less significant. He grabbed Mohamed Salah’s arm and dragged him down with impunity; Liverpool left flabbergasted by the hard landing which their talisman took. It damaged the forward’s shoulder severely, and the Reds’ prospects too.

Salah sobbed and left; he would not be the only Liverpool player to experience utter despair on the night. In the immediate as well, his teammates could not help but grieve; a slide from 56 touches in the final third to merely one, following Salah’s substitution, for the remainder of the first half told a sorry tale.

The goalless scoreline at half-time did allow the Liverpool players to clear their heads but it evidently did not do Karius any good. Ironically, considering how it all turned out eventually, the Reds delivered their best defensive performance of the season. Dejan Lovren, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Virgil van Dijk, and Andrew Robertson masterly denied the dominant Madrid space behind the defence. A goal would not come from the usual route, it seemed.

Sadly for Liverpool, there were other ways into the net for Madrid. Repeated replays can be used to pick apart where it all went wrong for Karius, but the fault lay in his head. He switched off for a second, Karim Benzema did not, and the ball slid away into the goal. Karius’ second howler of the night – as Klopp said after the match – was a consequence of the first, which makes the German goalkeeper’s otherwise impressive saves hard to place. While producing arguably the most humiliating performance for a goalie ever, considering the stage, Karius also kept Liverpool in the game. But a series of errors is what we will remember.

This is the dissonance on which Madrid’s triumph rests. Their opponents this season have committed acts which remain insistently inexplicable. Goalkeepers particularly seem prone to the voodoo which is afoot. Gianluigi
Buffon, Sven Ulreich and now Karius. It is as if they freeze when forced to confront the all-crushing spirit of Real Madrid.

But there’s another element to the success of Zidane and his players. It’s their ability to insert the spectacular into the ridiculous. Gareth Bale’s first goal on Saturday was the spin-off to Cristiano Ronaldo’s telescopic kick against Juventus, although the Welshman’s strike deserves a show of its own. The incredible bit about his bicycle-kick was the awareness to not give the ball a full thrashing of his foot. Instead, Bale used the pace of Marcelo’s cross to flick the ball into the top corner. Falling away, eyes looking at the stars, mind gleaming with genius.

This will be a part of the legacy of this Madrid side. Although it rides on a significant bit of fortune, it is the team’s ability to rise above the struggle that has won Zidane and his players three consecutive Champions League titles. Never mind that they have not won in the most impressive fashion. In a time when their opponents seem to be held back by the most fundamental of deficiencies or mistakes, Madrid have stood out for its ability to withstand pressure with admirable fortitude.

It is a shame that the Spanish giant’s grandest moment arrives in the absurd theatre of Karius’ making. However, this is also a moment to recognise Zidane’s role in the making of history. He may have been left bedazzled by Bale’s brilliance on Saturday in Kiev, but there is a lot that he can take credit for.

Particularly the manner in which the Madrid manager has set his team up. Unafraid to take bold decisions, and sticking to plans which have been shown to work, Zidane has stayed away from dilly-dallying or unnecessary tinkering. It is his sense of clarity which permeates Real Madrid. And when things do not work, Zidane has demonstrated his capability to change situations and plans. He is a coach not averse to modify his designs when required. It was Bale who changed the match on Saturday; it has been Marco Asensio or Lucas Vazquez earlier in the season as substitutes.

Even though the aftermath of the match was clouded by speculation over Ronaldo and Bale’s future, Zidane’s work stands unblemished. In a season where he slid too close to the sack, the legendary French footballer has fought back from the brink to reclaim his status as one of football’s true greats. After Johan Cruyff, he is arguably the only footballer to have straddled the challenges of playing and managing with incredible success. The consequence of Zidane’s genius is that this Madrid side now stands as a team with few parallels in history. In the Champions League era, though, it stands supreme.


Updated Date: May 27, 2018 14:33 PM

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