Titles, yes. But Madrid the Real deal?

Sergio Ramos lifts the trophy as Real Madrid celebrate winning the 2017 UEFA Champions League Final against Juventus in Cardiff. ‘Los Merengues’ tend to peak in the latter stages of the Champions League, with their players producing their best form when it matters most. (Getty Images)
Updated 28 May 2018
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Titles, yes. But Madrid the Real deal?

  • In Spain, Zinedine Zidane has been dismissed by some as a “clap clap” coach, somebody who does little more than stand in the technical area banging his hands together in encouragement, while letting the players get on with it.
  • Real Madrid win not because they stymie the opposition, but because they have so many good players that eventually one does something to win the game.

KIEV: Tonight Zinedine Zidane could become the first manager to win the Champions League three times in a row. Only Bob Paisley has ever won three before. That suggests the Real Madrid manager is one of the greatest ever — yet nobody truly believes that. The general view, in fact, seems to be one of confusion. What is it, exactly, that Zidane does?
In Spain, he has been dismissed by some as a “clap clap” coach, somebody who does little more than stand in the technical area banging his hands together in encouragement, while letting the players get on with it. That is not entirely fair, given that at various stages Zidane has left out Gareth Bale, Isco and Karim Benzema; persuaded Cristiano Ronaldo to spare his body by playing less often; and changed the course of games with astute substitutions.

But at the same time, Zidane lacks an obvious style in the manner of most modern coaches and, more troublingly, his teams often struggle to control games. They win not because they stymie the opposition, but because they have so many good players that eventually one does something to win the game. That has proved enough to bring success in the Champions League, but Real Madrid’s recent league record is dismal: For the richest club in the world to have won only two league titles in the past decade suggests something badly awry. Last season they won the league on the back of a string of unlikely comebacks; this season, the concession of 44 goals, more than Getafe and Espanyol, could not be overcome.
But that also says something about the modern Champions League. Over the past nine seasons, more than half the available slots in the competition’s semifinals have been occupied by three clubs: Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern. Wealth takes teams a long way. Certain clubs are all but certain to qualify and, having done so, are then all but certain to make it through the group stage. Jeopardy then comes with the last 16 draw, but frequently a super-club can breeze through to the quarterfinals without being tested at all.

 

And once a team is in the last eight, unless there is an outstanding side, the Champions League can feel like a game of pass the parcel. As Chelsea discovered in 2012, this competition is less about prolonged brilliance and more about simply being a good cup side and having a bit of luck.
Madrid’s success is probably down to a little more than that, fortunate as they were with the draw two years ago, but it does suggest a devaluing of what is supposed to be Europe’s premier competition. Or perhaps, more accurately, a repackaging: The Champions League has become what the FA Cup used to be, glamorous and exciting, a gripping drama and a creator of heroes — but not necessarily a way to determine who is best.
What Madrid have achieved — and it is something the club also did in the late 1950s when they won five European Cups in a row while winning la Liga only twice — is to find a way of peaking in the latter stages of the Champions League, so their players produce their best form when it matters.
In that sense, Zidane’s greatest gift is less the application of any sort of intensity or tactical rigor than simply his ability to coax superb performances out of fine set of players. His closest recent forebear, perhaps, is Carlo Ancelotti.
Such haphazardness and lack of planning, though, seem to run counter to the modern age. How long can you keep on winning just because your players are better than the opposition?
Tonight, we will find out.

Decoder

FASTFACTS

Marcelo vs Mohamed Salah

Marcelo might be one of the world’s great attacking full-backs, but he is not particularly disciplined when it comes to the defensive side of his job. That should offer opportunities for Salah, the Premier League’s top scorer, to get behind him. But the situation on the flank is more complicated than that. Against Roma in the semifinal second leg, Jurgen Klopp left Salah high up the pitch as Aleksandr Kolarov pushed forward from left-back. That meant Salah repeatedly found space, but also that Trent Alexander-Arnold was at times left exposed against the twin assault of Kolarov and Stephan El-Shaarawy, with Georgino Wijnaldum struggling to get across to cover from the right side of midfield. Klopp, presumably, will not risk something so cavalier here and Salah will track Marcelo at least to an extent — though if Madrid operate a 4-3-1-2, as seems likely, the direct pressure on Alexander-Arnold will be less intense.


Juventus crowned Italian Super Cup champions

‘I’m very happy to have won my first title with Juventus,’ Cristiano Ronaldo said. (Photo/General Sports Authority)
Updated 17 January 2019
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Juventus crowned Italian Super Cup champions

  • Ronaldo’s glancing header sinks AC Milan 1-0 at Jeddah’s King Abdullah Sports City Stadium

JEDDAH: A historic Wednesday evening at King Abdullah Sports City Stadium saw Italian champions Juventus beat AC Milan in the final of the 31st annual Supercoppa Italiana.

Cristiano Ronaldo scored the winning goal as Juventus lifted the Supercoppa Italiana for the first time since 2015 with a 1-0 victory in front of a sold-out 61,235-capacity crowd.

As only one should expect when two of the most successful Italian clubs go head to head, a tactical and elegant, albeit very physical, display of football was at hand. 

Cheerful roars from the Jeddah crowd resonated throughout the night, in the kind of buzzing atmosphere that only a cup final brings.

Juventus, the Serie A champions, began brightly and were the first side to settle into the game, threatening with frequent sweeping moves.

Juventus and Portuguese international Joao Cancelo could have opened the scoring in the 16th minute after being played through on goal, but the defender’s zooming effort lacked the necessary precision and whisked past the far post with the Milan keeper rooted in his spot.

A maddening crescendo of noise erupted when Juventus and French international Blaise Matuidi thought he had opened the scoring in the 33rd minute after being played through by Costa before being flagged offside. 

Juventus did not have too much longer for another opportunity though, with Ronaldo’s acrobatic half volley from just outside the six-yard box bouncing and nestling agonizingly just over the bar and sparing Donnarumma’s blushes in the process.

Christiano Ronaldo has scored eight goals in his last seven finals. (Reuters)

Milan, who qualified for the final as runners-up to Juventus in last season’s Coppa Italia, had struggled throughout the first half to settle into the game. They gradually grew into their own though, and nearly broke the deadlock at the stroke of halftime with a stinging drive from Turkish international Hakan Calhanoglu.

After a slew of opportunities had Juventus failing to build a halftime lead, Milan nearly made them pay for their squandered chances by starting the second half like bats out of hell. 

Milan’s confident pressing start to the half was almost rewarded in the 47th minute when a Ronaldo tackle inadvertently set up Cutrone with a clear sight on goal.  The striker turned and blasted an effort that rattled off the crossbar — the closest either team had come thus far.

And just when the tide seemed to have turned for Milan in the second half, their confidence building with every minute, a perfectly floating cross from Pjanic found Ronaldo with yards of space, and he made no mistake directing a swift header into the back of the net in the 61st minute and sending Juve supporters into a frenzy.


• AS IT HAPPENED: Cristiano Ronaldo's goal gives Juventus Supercoppa Italiana victory over AC Milan in Jeddah >>

• Arab News Matchday gallery >>


Things went from bad to worse for Milan in the 73rd minute. Franck Kessie came rushing in with a recklessly timed tackle, crunching his studs into the shins of Emre Can, which resulted in him seeing a straight red and leaving Milan with 10 men and a subsequent insurmountable uphill battle.

The final whistle came soon after, and with it brought Juventus a record eighth Supercoppa. It goes without saying that there is nothing quite like the atmosphere of a cup final, but this was a historic and monumental occasion for Jeddah. 

The first major European cup final match being held in Saudi Arabia is now in the books, and with it brought an added sense of passion and excitement. 

Thousands of men, women and children showed up enthusiastically, were highly supportive of both teams, and were thoroughly entertained. It was a successful and memorable night that will surely pave the way for many more.

Addressing a prematch press conference on Tuesday night, Juventus Captain Giorgio Chiellini had defended the choice of Jeddah as the venue for the game against a backdrop of criticism by some. He said that it was “right” to give the Saudi port city the chance to host the showpiece match.

“We (footballers) cannot change the world but initiatives such as this can provide a new start.”

Juventus had been experiencing a worrying trend in cup finals of late. Despite securing the Serie A and Coppa Italia double for three seasons running, they had lost back-to-back Supercoppas and seven out of nine European Cup finals. 

Chiellini, however, firmly believed that his team would change the trend and the team did make their captain proud. 

Juventus now holds the outright record of most Italian Super Cups with eight titles. (Arab News photo by Ali Khamg)