Why we’ll never see a Champions League final like Real Madrid vs Borussia Dortmund again

As the two Champions League finalists set off for London, the contrasting moods among the squads said enough. For Real Madrid, it’s a sense of duty. There’s excitement about returning to this stage, sure, but also an awareness that this is simply what they do. They go to these games and win them. For Borussia Dortmund, there’s a sense of genuine wonder. Manager Edin Terzic has described it as “a dream”. This is just the third Champions League final in their history and first in 11 years. Many of their players are aware they may never get this chance again. For club stalwart Marco Reus, it may even be the last chance to properly fulfil his talent and win a major trophy.

As rare as this feeling is for Dortmund, though, it actually isn’t that infrequent for this showpiece. The Champions League final may be the biggest global event in club football – and maybe all of sport, after the World Cup final – but it has rarely featured a showdown between the two best teams in Europe. They have tended to come earlier in the knockouts, usually involving Madrid and Manchester City in recent times. The curiosity of that goes back further, through what has been one of the Champions League’s last remaining unpredictabilities. In the 11 years since Dortmund’s last appearance at this stage, there have arguably been six finals where there was one outstanding favourite. This is certainly the second in a row, after Inter Milan’s surprisingly spirited 1-0 defeat to City last season.

It may also be the last year of this. From next season’s expanded “Super Champions League”, the knock-out stages will be entirely seeded after the first-round open table. So, while you might well get Real Madrid and Arsenal on the same side of the draw again, it’s unlikely you get all of Madrid, City, Arsenal and Bayern Munich on the same side. Or whoever their equivalents are as the four best teams next season. It’s certainly going to be that bit more difficult for teams who aren’t at that elite level, while representing just another way elite football is curated and engineered.

It is maybe why this final should be relished, in the same way as the Dortmund players are looking at it. If it is to be the last of an era, this match almost represents an extreme. The simple numbers say enough, before you get into bigger issues like finance.

Madrid are going for their 15th Champions League and sixth in 11 years, while Carlo Ancelotti can win his fifth as a manager. Dortmund are hoping for just their second, and first in 27 years.

This is reflected in the relative chasm between league positions. With Real Madrid the champions of Spain, and Dortmund fifth in the Bundesliga, it is the biggest gap between the league position of finalists since the foundation of the Champions League in 1992. Only two previous finals match it: Bayern Munich vs Valencia in 2001 and Bayern vs Chelsea in 2012. First against fifth and second against sixth, respectively. The latter produced a “surprise” but Chelsea’s long-term strength ensured it was nothing close to what a Dortmund victory would be here.

Borussia Dortmund have done brilliantly in the Champions League knockouts but face an uphill battle against Real Madrid in the final (Getty Images)
Borussia Dortmund have done brilliantly in the Champions League knockouts but face an uphill battle against Real Madrid in the final (Getty Images)

This gap has created a slightly odd build-up to this game for a Champions League final. It doesn’t feel epic, although that obviously won’t be the case for the tens of thousands of Dortmund fans who travel. You might almost call it 2002 World Cup syndrome. As exhilarating as shocks and surprises are, they often have an adverse effect on the final. There’s just too much of a gap by that point. Consequently, very few people are looking at this match and expecting anything other than a Madrid victory. The anticipation is mostly about how long Dortmund can stay alive; how close they get to pulling off something big.

Ancelotti won’t let Madrid think like that, of course. He has already pointed to how people would have said similar about Dortmund’s run to this final so far. The German side probably should have been knocked out by both Atletico Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain. Luck is a large part of why they are here, along with their presence in the more forgiving side of the draw.

Good fortune has an emotional momentum of its own; it can lift teams to higher levels on the big occasion.

It’s just that no one tends to go to a higher level than Madrid in these games and that applies to the bountiful luck they enjoy, too. Ancelotti’s side probably would have lost their last final, against Liverpool in 2022, but for the excellence of Thibaut Courtois in goal. Madrid won again. That’s what they do. It is why there is an extra psychological obstacle. Dortmund don’t just have to overcome Madrid’s current quality. They also have to overcome the knowledge of their record in finals.

Real Madrid have been unbeatable in Champions League finals since 1981 (PA Archive)
Real Madrid have been unbeatable in Champions League finals since 1981 (PA Archive)

Madrid have not lost in this fixture since the defeat to Liverpool in 1981. Since then, they have won eight successive Champions League finals. That is more finals than every other European club has been to in their entire history, outside AC Milan, Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Juventus and Barcelona.

But that record does have to end sometime, and this year’s Champions League final has the potential to be an odd game. Both teams would prefer to stand off. Terzic has made Dortmund more pragmatic. Ancelotti would prefer to simply release Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo on the break. In between them, Jude Bellingham has been carrying an injury.

The English midfielder faces revitalised compatriot Jadon Sancho. The on-loan winger was superb for Dortmund in the semi-finals against Paris Saint-Germain but it would likely take something beyond even that performance to turn the final in the Germans’ favour. Madrid just have too much class and will be capable of picking more holes in Dortmund’s porous backline. Their best hope is perhaps keeping it tight for as long as possible and then hoping for some kind of knockout magic.

That was also the theme going into last weekend’s FA Cup final. Manchester United stunned Manchester City. It will take even more for Dortmund to shock Madrid – but it can happen.

Both Wembley and Uefa could do with the final going smoothly. The last Uefa event here was the disastrous Euro 2020 final. The last two Champions League finals have been logistical nightmares, with that 2022 game in Paris fortunate to avoid deaths.

Uefa are desperate to avoid the dangerous scenes outside the 2022 Champions League final in Paris (AP)
Uefa are desperate to avoid the dangerous scenes outside the 2022 Champions League final in Paris (AP)

Both the Football Association and Uefa have taken all this in. Another outer perimeter is to be built, there are improved gates. The hope is everything goes smoothly.

On the pitch, Madrid will just seek to do what they always do. Dortmund are aiming to give us something we haven’t seen in years.

The Champions League arguably needs it. Another Madrid win would just be more of the same, the record barely meaning much more. For Dortmund, it would be everything.