“Real Madrid has no business winning the UEFA Champions League.”
That’s what we would have said five months ago when Real Madrid fired Rafa Benitez and installed Zinedine Zidane as head coach.
Yet, here we are.
In the year Leicester city went from 5000:1 long-shots to Premier League champion, Real Madrid returns to the throne FC Barcelona claimed last year and does so at Atletico Madrid’s expense. Real Madrid’s victory reminds the soccer world miracles aren’t a requirement for success in 2016. Sometimes the smallest of changes can leave the deepest of impacts.
Real Madrid defeated Atletico Madrid in the 2016 Champions League Final on Saturday in Milan, edging its crosstown rivals in a penalty-kick shootout after 120 minutes of open play failed to produce a winner. The difference between the teams on this day, and this season, is equal to the width of the post Juanfran hit on Atletico Madrid’s final fourth penalty kick. The game and the shootouts were that close.
But to the victor go the spoils, and Real Madrid deserves them, regardless of how it acquired them.
The 2016 triumph was Real Madrid’s 11th in the history of the competition, but it’s unlike the others, given how far Real Madrid came in such a short span of time.
Real Madrid wasn’t imploding like Chelsea when Zidane took charge on Jan. 4. The club was in third place in La Liga (Spain’s first division) and sailed through the Champions League group stage. But Zidane had to change the team’s mood and direction in order to win anything this season.
Zidane didn’t have to do much to create winning momentum for Real Madrid. He deployed Casemiro as an energitic holding midfielder and Cristiano Ronaldo from a central attacking position back to the left side of the front three. Ronaldo soon began firing goals, and wins rolled Real Madrid’s way.
Real Madrid’s April 2 victory over Barcelona convinced most observers that Zidane was no gimmick or puppet of club president Florentino Perez.
Zidane, a Real Madrid legend and 2002 Champions League winner as a player, is the real deal as a coach. He now joins Miguel Munoz (Real Madrid in 1960), Guus Hiddink (PSV in 1988) and Pep Guardiola (Barcelona in 2009) among coaches who won European soccer’s elite competition in their first season as a head coach.
Like he did as a player, Zidane also sets the standard for his country’s coaching community.
Atletico Madrid is feeling that agony of defeat right now. Real Madrid’s win over its crosstown rival simply multiplies its fresh thrill of victory to the 11th power.
Zidane will carry a gravitas only a Champions League title can bestow on a leader as he marches Real Madrid boldly into the future. He improved Real Madrid to a second-place finish in La Liga (behind Barcelona) and delivered Champions League glory, albeit on penalty kicks, soccer’s proverbial coin-flip.
And to think, Perez reportedly would have sought another coach if Real Madrid finished third in La Liga and failed to reach the semifinals of the Champions League.
But Zidane hit his targets, Real Madrid beat Altetico Madrid in the Champions League final for the second time in three years and extended its record with an 11th European triumph. And the Spanish giant now has its own Guardiola — widely considered the sport’s top coach — in Zidane; someone who rose from Real Madrid player, to administrator to assistant coach (in the 2014 victory) to boss.
Sometimes the smallest margins are the sweetest ones.
Thumbnail photo via Facebook/UEFA Champions League
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