Real Madrid became the first team to defend the UEFA Champions League on Saturday, beating Juventus 4-1 in the 2017 Final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, thanks to a brace from star forward Cristiano Ronaldo, lifting an unprecedented 12th title or Duodécimo in the process.
Zinedine Zidane, who has worked wonders since his mid-season appointment last season, stuck to his guns and opted to keep record-signing Gareth Bale on the bench, with the in-form Isco getting the nod in the Welshman’s stead. Apart from that, the holders trotted out in their standard 4-3-3 formation and it was always going to be an intriguing battle against the Italian giants.
Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri kept the same starting Xi which had served him so well this season, with the vaunted ‘BBC’ the chosen three in his 3-4-3 with Paulo Dybala, Mario Mandzukic and Gonzalo Higuain leading the line for the Bianconeri.
The final started off with the Italians on the front-foot, pressing the defending champions high up the pitch, harrying midfielders Toni Kroos and Luka Modric every time they got the ball.
Mirajlem Panic had the first chance of the tie, sending in a thunderous half-volley from the edge of the box but Keylor Navas was equal to the task and made a fine save to keep the scores level.
Slowly but surely, Los Blancos began to grow into the game but their attempts at goal were largely kept to speculative crosses which never really threatened Gianluigi Buffon’s goal.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere and against the run of play, Ronaldo scored. In sensational form of late, the Portuguese forward played a smart one-two with right-back Dani Carvajal before finishing well from just inside the box in the 20th minute. Leonardo Bonucci tried in vain to stop the Madrid man from scoring but his touch just ensured Buffon was well-beaten.
To their credit, Juventus didn’t let the early deficit deflate them and fought back but not even the most fanatical Bianconeri faithful could have predicted the manner of their equaliser. Mandzukic chested Higuain’s lay-off in the box and with his back to the goal, let fly with an acrobatic effort which flew past Navas in the 27th minute.The Croatian’s goal was worthy of winning any final, most would agree, but Ronaldo and Madrid had other ideas.
As half-time approached, both teams seemingly abandoned their goal-scoring intents as understandably, neither wanted to be caught on a counter and start the second-half behind.
The second period saw much more action and plenty of goals as Real stamped their authority of the final, once again proving that if there is a competition that is meant for them, it is the Champions League.
Defensive midfielder Casemiro pounced on a lose ball on the edge of the Juventus box to rifle home in the 61st minute and that goal definitely took the fight out of the Bianconeri.
They began to lose their discipline and within three minutes Ronaldo arrived at the far-post to finish Modric’s cross to score his 600th career goal and perhaps even more tellingly, clinch the Champions League Golden boot. He was one goal behind arch-rival Lionel Messi prior to kick-off, but before 90 minutes were completed, had already overtaken the Barcelona forward.
Allegri went for broke, sending on winger Juan Cuadrado for centre-back Andrea Barzagli, but a dramatic turnaround never looked likely. In fact, the Colombian winger had a decisive part to play, albeit not the one his manager would have sent him on for. He was sent off for a second bookable offence after some unsavoury play-acting by Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos, but in truth the game was already over well before the holders had the man advantage.
Substitute Marco Asensio added gloss to the scoreline after Marcelo had bamboozled Alex Sandro on the left wing and sent in a inch-perfect cross for the youngster to stroke home in the 90th minute.
Zidane has now created history as no man, not the great Alex Ferguson nor his contemporary Pep Guardiola, has managed to do what the Frenchman has achieved in less than two complete seasons at the Santiago Bernabeu. Defending the Champions League in its current format in your first job is a story that beggars belief. Critics will say he inherited a great team but if one looks closely, when Zidane took over, the same team were struggling under Rafael Benitez and the Frenchman has truly transformed a side that were shorn of any confidence.
With the La Liga title already wrapped up this season, Zizou’s place among the modern greats is assured, despite it still being early days in his managerial career.