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Real Madrid high-wire act brings Champions League glory again

Real Madrid’s Champions League existence resembles the competition’s version of a high-wire act, where the Spanish giants stumble and threaten to fall so many times, but rarely do.

Boss Carlo Ancelotti claimed a historic fifth Champions League title and Real secured their 15th win in the tournament as the bold challenge of Borussia Dortmund was overcome at Wembley with late goals from Dani Carvajal and Vinicius Jr.

As Ancelotti and his players hoisted the giant trophy amid pyrotechnics and fireworks over the stadium, it was a familiar conclusion to a story that had so many elements of the old plotlines.

It is not quite a case of "if you've seen one of these victories you've seen them all", but many of the opponents Real have left broken-hearted in these finals in recent years – Atletico Madrid and Liverpool chief among them – will sympathise with the pain Dortmund felt as they walked forlornly in front of their magnificent fans who illuminated Wembley with their colour and made it echo to their noise.

Real stumbled around in a dreadful first half for Ancelotti’s side, spooked by Dortmund’s pace and the sheer intensity of Edin Terzic’s side, living on their nerves and luck to somehow go in at half-time on level terms.

Karim Adeyemi will wonder whether he should have shot rather than try to go around Real keeper Thibaut Courtois when clean through, then whether he could have done better with another chance that was saved.

Niclas Fullkrug saw his shot bounce back agonisingly from the inside of the post, the striker thwarted by Courtois after the break from a powerful header.

And all the time there was a growing sense of inevitability that Real would survive and prevail when they looked deep in trouble, as they did against Manchester City in the quarter-finals and Bayern Munich in the last four.

Real Madrid's Jude Bellingam lifts the Champions League trophy
England's Jude Bellingham scored 23 goals in all competitions in his first season with Real Madrid [Reuters]

Real are quite simply the Champions League’s most ruthless winning machine. And in Ancelotti they have a coach with the Midas touch, in charge of players who have totted up so many wins in this competition and know how to get the job done.

They showed it again when Dortmund blinked 16 minutes from time, Carvajal meeting Toni Kroos’ corner to glance a header beyond keeper Gregor Kobel and the despairing hand of defender Mats Hummels, who was clearly tempted to risk a red card to keep the effort out.

The game was up, Vinicius Jr swiftly adding a second to ensure Real’s supporters were able to enjoy triumph in the competition in which they are the dominant force.

Those of us who have followed Real’s fortunes in the Champions League over the years are now old hands at this.

We can recall watching them steal victory from under the noses of arch-rivals Atletico Madrid with Sergio Ramos’ 93rd-minute equaliser at Lisbon’s Stadium of Light in 2014, going on to win 4-1 to give Ancelotti his first Champions League at the club.

And again in Paris two years ago, when one of the great faultless goalkeeping performances from Courtois left Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, in particular, driven to despair with Vinicius Jr emerging as the match-winner.

The temptation is to label Real lucky, but it simply happens on too many occasions for this to be a justified description. A straw poll among neutrals at half-time at Wembley would have come down firmly on the side of a Real victory, even though they had been abysmal.

Real may have been mediocre for large parts but ended up writing another fresh chapter in their rich history. So Real. So Carlo Ancelotti.

Through it all stood the impassive Ancelotti, the masterly facilitator of great players, working it out with the help of those in his charge, including a lengthy touchline conversation with Carvajal close to half-time.

If he was feeling stress at Real’s struggles, he did not show it - and why should he? He, more than anyone, knows what he has at his disposal and what they have delivered for him before. They did it again.

The Italian has been eclipsing his contemporaries in this competition for two decades. Even the two most trumpeted of the recent generation in Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have come nowhere near his record of success.

It was night when Real celebrated what will soon by the past but also looked to a golden future – one likely to be spearheaded by Kylian Mbappe when he completes his expected move to the Bernabeu, a chilling prospect for those hoping to prevent a 16th win next season.

England's Jude Bellingham may have had a quiet night compared his stellar deeds in his first season at Real Madrid, where he has now added the Champions League to La Liga, the SuperCopa and La Liga’s Player of the Year award.

The 20-year-old struggled to make an impact at Wembley but still provided the pass for Vinicius Jr’s second goal, also missing a great chance himself with the score 1-0.

Bellingham will be the centrepiece for Real going forward, and England manager Gareth Southgate will hope a Champions League winners’ medal will provide a turbo-charge going into Euro 2024.

It was farewell to the masterly Kroos, who joined Carvajal, Nacho and late substitute Luka Modric in winning their sixth Champions League title, all equalling the tournament record of another Real icon, Paco Gento.

The latter three are still likely to be at the Bernabeu next season with power to add because Real Madrid – no matter how they do it – quite simply keep on rewriting history.

Who would bet against them, bolstered by Mbappe, coming back and lifting the Champions League again in 12 months' time?