The final was a display of power by Real Madrid, who would go on to become the first team in history to successfully defend their Champions League title.
The stage was set for Gianluigi Buffon to cap off his illustrious career with that beautiful Champions League trophy. Juventus’ struggle to conquer Europe has been well documented. 1998, 2003, 2015 and now 2017, Juventus have lost 4 Champions League finals in the last 19 years. But 2017 was supposed to be different. Buffon, now 39, had been part of the the 2003 and 2015 squads. There was an echo around the corner, urging Juventus to beat the giants from Spain. A huge amount of neutrals did not want Real Madrid to retain their title, and did not want them to become the first team in history to defend the Champions League title.
But that’s exactly what happened. The Millenium Stadium in Cardiff set the stage for the clash of the two historic clubs. On one hand, it was the Massimiliano Allegri led underdogs from Turin. On the other, were the seemingly invincible Zinedine Zidane led superstars of Real Madrid. The eyes of the world were set on the match. The occasion had been overpowered by a sense of individual milestones (or a lack thereof). Buffon had strived all his career for the ever-elusive trophy, and this was supposed to be his grand exit. Ronaldo had dismantled teams left right and centre in the knockout stages, and had eased past the best goalkeepers in the world. At the peak of his poaching powers, he represented the other side of the narrative, the one supporting Madrid.
The road to the final couldn’t have been more fulfilling for both the teams. Juventus had conceded only 3 (ONLY THREE) goals throughout the campaign, including just one in 2017. Real Madrid, meanwhile, had been trotting through defences, opening up sides like a child with presents on Christmas. 32 goals in just 12 games had seen them score more goals in the Champions League season, than sides like Middlesborough and Sunderland scored throughout the year. The staggering numbers on either side of the spectrum showed the impeccable campaigns that these two sides had had. The best defence vs. The best attack, it just couldn’t have been better.
When they talk about phrases like ‘butterflies in the stomach’, they do it to describe exactly these situations. Following an underwhelming performance by the Black Eyed Peas, you could the see the glitter in the eyes of everyone in the stadium. The annual showpiece of European football, has rarely ever disappointed. Capturing the imagination of fans and neutrals alike, it almost always has lived up to the billing (but of course 2003 was a 0-0 a.e.t). Juventus would come out roaring almost shocking the Real Madrid defence into oblivion. The silky footwork of Dybala, combined with the flair of Higuain and Mandzukic would make for a stunning start. 8 minutes in, Real Madrid had hardly seen the ball, let alone create something with it. Peppered with great chances for the Juventus attack, the barrage by the men in black and white however would soon die out. All this while, you could see how tightly Ronaldo had been marked. Not given an inch to breathe, it would become pretty apparent very soon that wasn’t going to have an easy night.
But 20 minutes in, the tables would be turned. A half-chance with a well crafted pass from Benzema, would become a full chance, and eventually a goal by none other than the most wanted man of the night, Cristiano Ronaldo, making him the first ever player to score in three Champions League finals. But the match would soon come to life (7 minutes later to be precise), when Mandzukic scored an out-worldly goal, finishing a move where the the ball hadn’t touched the ground after having been through four different Juventus players. Time stood still, as Mandzukic lifted himself, and then the ball into the air, only to dip agonisingly close to an outstretched Keylor Navas, making it 1-1, sending the Juventus fans into a frenzy.
But it seemed like that time had stood still for only one team: Juventus. It was almost like they forgot to compete after that. Madrid were growing into the game, and climbing onto the black and white stripes of the Old Lady. The old adage of “a game of two halves” couldn’t have been more true. It was the 27th minute then, and at the end of 90, it would become 4-1 to Real Madrid. In the time between the insane goal by Mandzukic, and the final whistle, Real Madrid (albeit with some luck), had opened up the Juventus defence three times without reply. The famed trio of Bonucci-Barzagli-Chiellini, backed by the ever reliable Buffon had been exposed by the brilliance of Modric, Ronaldo and the likes. Casemiro’s ambitious strike from outside would begin the onslaught. Taking a heavy deflection, it would perfectly spin past the trying Buffon, and nestled in the back of the net. After that, it was just one way traffic. Nothing, it seemed like absolutely nothing could take away Madrid’s trophy, and that was to be true. An out of balance Modric would then setup a tap-in for Ronaldo, with an exquisite cross from the right flank. Although Ramos’ antics were to be the death knell for Cuadrado, it would only make things worse for Juventus.
In the face of adversity, 3-1 down, Juventus were now also man down. The eyes on the match (only those supporting Juventus) had now resigned themselves to the fact that Zidane’s men would march on to a 2nd consecutive Champions League triumph, and give the club it’s 12th European title. It was all about to die down when Marco Asensio, one of the young guns of the Los Blancos, would rub salt on Juve’s wounds, and slot in a 4th goal, cementing a scoreline beyond anyone’s wildest imaginations. It was a repeat of 2014 when Real Madrid had beaten their city rivals, Atletico, with the same score, albeit after extra time. In Juventus’ 2nd try in three years, they had fallen short at the final hurdle, overshadowed by a couple of teams, who were just incredibly better on their day.
Zinedine Zidane, in his life, has only managed 20 Champions League matches. He has won the competition twice in those 20 matches. The figure is enough to express the turnaround that Real Madrid have had this decade. The 2000s had seen the club underachieving. Although the Los Blancos programme of Perez had reaped benefits domestically, Real Madrid hadn’t been able to reach a Champions League final since 2002. That 2002 final had been highlighted by a wonderful strike from Zidane, but that sadly would be the high point for Real Madrid in the first decade of the 21st century. The subsequent years however, would tell a different story. Advances were being made, and Madrid were getting back on their feet, as filled-with-irony as that statement sounds. It wasn’t until 2014 that they reached the final again, and the “Road to La Decima” had been conquered. The 10th title, would soon be followed by an 11th, and now a 12th, cementing their place at the top of world football. The Real Madrid of the old, would shine through in the winning football that the club now play under this bald-headed genius called Zinedine Zidane.
Cristiano Ronaldo would be named Man of the Match for his two goals. His poaching par excellence had proved too much for the ever attentive Juventus defence. Real Madrid would break a million hearts, but also rewrite record books in the process.
You can try to match them, mark them, score stunners, but you can’t beat them. Ronaldo was marked tightly, but still came through with 2 goals, capping off a season where he beat the best keepers in the world constantly. Zidane hasn’t finished a top flight season as a manager without a Champions League trophy. Real Madrid become the first team to defend that beautiful trophy. That trophy may always elude Buffon, but for now, it will be kept in the place that most deserves it.
Champions League 2016-17 winners, Real Madrid.