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Sergio Ramos is sort of a metaphor for Real Madrid itself. The defensive stalwart and captain has a classically handsome face, yet thick facial hair, sprawling tattoos, and a Mohawk-ish haircut lend him a rough edge. His defensive play, likewise, is generationally brilliant — earning him seven straight FIFPro World XI selections, likely soon to be eight. But it also comes with a nasty, take-no-prisoners streak.
On Saturday, Real Madrid claimed its third straight UEFA Champions League title and a fourth in five years against Liverpool. And Ramos may or may not have purposely injured Mohamed Salah, knocking the dominant Egyptian forward out of the game and swinging its momentum instantaneously.
After winning a World Cup and two European Championships with Spain, Ramos is now a four-time European champion at the club level as well. Real as a whole has won 13 European titles. No other team has more than seven.
Real also became the first winners of three straight European Cup or Champions League titles — the latter succeeded the former — since Bayern Munich from 1974 through 1976. Because Real, like Ramos, has a flair for combining the beautiful with the functional. It can be as high-minded as it can be cynical. As dominant as it can be scrappy.
The evidence now overwhelms that Real simply knows better how to win, however a final happens to play out. Those title games tend to be tight and tense and usually devolve into battles of attrition. As a broad rule, the higher the stakes are, the more this becomes true. But it isn’t always so. And it’s Real’s uncanny ability to adapt to whatever way the game might shake out that makes it so special.
In 2014, at the beginning of this run, a Ramos equalizer in the 93rd minute sent the game to extra time, where Real finally broke through against Atletico Madrid’s stout defense and ran up a 4-1 score. Two years later, Real prevailed on penalties in the rematch. Last year, Real ran roughshod over Juventus in the second half, posting another 4-1 score.
On Saturday, Liverpool made an aggressive start, taking advantage of Real’s unusual policy of not pressing the ball high up the field. The Reds unsettled Real into simple mistakes and controlled the game early.
But after half an hour, Salah came off injured. He’d gotten tangled up with Ramos, who wrapped him up by the arm and wrestled him to the ground. Some type of shoulder injury forced the forward off and reduced him to tears.
Was it dirty? Ramos clutched onto Salah’s arm longer than he strictly needed to, and after the play was effectively over. So maybe? And so did he mean to injure him? It’s hard to say. But you wouldn’t put it past him, given a long track record of doing just about anything it takes to win soccer games.
At any rate, the effect was devastating as Liverpool deflated completely and looked shellshocked for the remainder of the first half.
The numbers bear this out.
The three Real goals that followed were, again, quintessentially Real.
The first, coming after Isco almost capitalized on a defensive mistake but dinked his volley off the crossbar, was sly. In the 51st minute, Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius picked up a ball behind the line that had zoomed out of Karim Benzema’s reach. The German tried to roll it out casually, but Benzema, who’d had a rebound goal from a Cristiano Ronaldo header disallowed for offside in the first half, stuck his leg out and redirected the throw into the net.
The second was an instant-classic goal. After Sadio Mane had equalized for Liverpool, Gareth Bale bicycled Marcelo’s cross over Karius.
The third was opportunistic. After an attack fizzled, Bale teed up a long shot that swerved late on Karius, who read it all wrong and punched the ball into his own net.
It was ironic for Bale to get those goals. Once the world’s most expensive player and the last true Galactico to head to the Spanish capital, he’d had a difficult season. Injury and the emergence of Isco had relegated him to the bench for swaths of the season and this final, coming on for Isco after an hour. This was a redemptive final game of the season for him.
Just as it was for the entire team. In spite of winning four trophies this campaign — the Champions league, the Club World Cup, the UEFA Super Cup and the Supercopa de Espana — Real had an unusually rough go of it. It came third in La Liga, a full 17 points back from arch-rival Barcelona. And it crashed out of the Copa del Rey in the quarterfinals.
But Real also navigated an impossibly difficult path to the Champions League final. A tough group draw — with Tottenham Hotspur and Borussia Dortmund — was followed by knockout stages against Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Bayern Munich. The second leg against Juve was not won until the 98th minute, when a Ronaldo penalty finally secured a semifinal place.
Again and again, Real figured out a way to win. To prevail pragmatically if no other solution could be found. The fabled club wasn’t the best in Europe this season. It just knew how to win better than everybody else.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
More Champions League final coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Real Madrid wins Champions League for third straight year
• Watch: Bale scores one of the best goals in a final you’ll ever see
• Liverpool star Salah leaves Champions League final due to injury
• Benzema takes advantage of Karius blunder (video)
• Bailey: Liverpool was once the Real Madrid of its day