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No club had ever won the UEFA Champions League in consecutive seasons since it had been rebranded and revamped from the European Cup in 1992. Indeed, nobody had done it in either incarnation of the competition since AC Milan won it in 1989 and 1990. And no other club had been European champions a dozen times before.
Real Madrid pulled off both on Saturday, beating Juventus 4-1 in a scintillating final in Cardiff, Wales.
Cristiano Ronaldo scored a pair of goals for Real – his 11th and 12th of the competition, 104th and 105th in Europe all time to extend his own record and the 599th and 600th of his club and international careers. Those goals, a deflected Casemiro shot and a late Marco Asensio tally overwhelmed Mario Mandzukic’s wonder goal for Juventus. And that made it three Real Champions League titles in four years and a dozen overall. No other club has more than seven (AC Milan).
Juventus already held the record for most lost Champions League finals with six. This seventh defeat was also its fifth in a row – 1997, ’98, ’03, ’15, ’17 – and its second in three years. Juve’s iconic 39-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon has now lost three finals with the club in his storied career.
Going into the game, even casual fans understood that there was every chance that this final would be regressive, cagey and, well, boring. That’s how big finals very often go. That’s how Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United secured the Europa League trophy a week earlier. With a cynical game plan that ruthlessly capitalized on the attacking intent of the opposition. “Poets don’t win many titles,” the Portuguese serial title-winner declared after the game, in his signature blend of brazenness and quotability.
But neither Real manager Zinedine Zidane, one of the finest playmakers in the game’s history, nor his Juve counterpart Max Allegri, who is utterly un-Italian in his aesthetic soccer sensibilities, heeded that received wisdom. If this Juventus is famous for its impregnable defense, it also boasts an attacking machinery rivaled by few clubs in the world. Real Madrid, of course, excels on both fronts.
Juventus made a surprisingly aggressive start, highlighted by a Gonzalo Higuain dribble through the middle. His lashed shot at Keylor Navas’s goal was scrambled up on the second attempt by the Costa Rican goalkeeper.
Navas prevented an early Juventus goal a second time in the sixth minute, when an extended Juve attack pinned Real back and eventually presented Miralem Pjanic with a half-volley. Navas got to it in spite of the speed and spin on the ball.
There was a temerity and a joy to Juve’s play that we’ve not historically expected from Italian teams, especially not in big finals. Paulo Dybala backheel-nutmegging an opponent in his own half, for instance, suggested that for its defensive stoutness Allegri’s Juventus side has evolved into something un-Italian. Something post-Italian, perhaps.
But Real wouldn’t be Real if it didn’t capitalize on its vast experience with high-stakes games like this and convert its one early chance. Ronaldo, defended ever so tightly until then, received the ball outside the box in the 20th minute, hit the overlapping Dani Carvajal on his right and got it back in the pocket between Juve’s lines he opened up by slowing his run.
He slotted his low shot into the far corner, past the sprawling Buffon.
That made Ronaldo the first player to score in three Champions League finals – after he’d scored five times in the quarterfinals against Bayern Munich and three times against Atletico Madrid in the semis, mind you. It was also only the second goal conceded by Juve in the knockout stage.
For the skill and team choreography in that Real goal, however, there was no competing with Juve’s equalizer seven minutes later, in the 27th. Few such goals were ever scored when a European title was on the line, or indeed any other time.
Alex Sandro volleyed in a cross from deep on the Pjanic long ball. Higuain chested it and kept it in the air for Mandzukic, who chested it as well, and then bicycle kicked it over Navas and into the net just under the upright before it ever touched the ground.
It was a goal of a beauty not seen in the European title game since Zidane himself volleyed Real to the Champions League trophy in the 2002 final. The Frenchman, by the way, won his third European title with the club – one as a player and two in just a season and a half as manager.
Juventus seemed to abandon its attacking intent in the second half, though, initially taking a cagier approach that, for a while, turned the game into a festival of hard tackles. But Real, which had controlled possession in the first half, seized the edge in chances in the second half as well, as the Spaniards lay siege to Buffon’s penalty area.
Just after the hour, Casemiro unleashed a speculative long shot. It took a savage deflection off Sami Khedira’s heel, imparting a tight spin that swirled the ball just out of Buffon’s range.
And three minutes later, the deed was done as Ronaldo got his second. The outstanding Luka Modric reached the back line and managed to cut the ball back into the Portuguese’s path. He had spotted a seam in Juve’s typically tight three-man back line, met the ball and cleanly redirected it into the net.
Juve’s re-commitment to pushing forward following the third goal was too long in waiting and ultimately toothless. And whatever venom was left in a side seemingly aware that it was already beaten seeped away when Juan Cuadrado managed to get himself sent off with a second yellow card in the 85th minute, after coming on in the second half.
In the 90th minute, Marco Asensio confirmed this with a fourth Real goal, finishing off a clever bit of play from Marcelo.
Real, again, was the deserving European champion. And now that it has almost twice as many continental crowns as any other club, there can be no doubt about the identity of the most successful soccer team in the world – as if any remained. Just as Ronaldo confirmed his greatness, should it not have already been established well before Saturday.
Europe has a new soccer champion. Same as the old champion.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.