Implacable self-belief carries Real Madrid to Champions League glory | Champions League


In every walk of life, there are people whose greatest gift is being the most confident person in the room. They succeed and you can never quite work out why. What is it they actually do? Is it anything beyond just looking the part? Real Madrid have just won the Champions League for the 14th time.

It can’t just be luck. There has to be more to it than that. And yet in every game in the knockout phase of this Champions League, against Paris Saint-Germain, against Chelsea, against Manchester City, they have had fewer shots than their opponents. On Saturday, Liverpool had 24 shots to Madrid’s four. The only difference between the final and what had gone before was that this time there was no point at which Liverpool apparently had the game won, and Karim Benzema didn’t score.

But Liverpool did suffer that bizarre syndrome that seems to afflict all of Madrid’s opponents at some point when they run into that implacable self-belief and suddenly misplace the capacity to perform the simplest tasks. Experienced players were transformed into starstruck teenagers bumping into their hero and finding themselves unable to do anything other than stare at their feet and blurt out random high-pitched squawks.

Passes are misplaced, crosses overhit, dangerous forwards weirdly ignored. Defenders and goalkeepers who have been solid all season end up lying down in the box as the ball ricochets between them and only a VAR decision that nobody seemed able to explain rules out an opening goal.

Liverpool may point out that Sadio Mané hit the post, that Thibaut Courtois was forced into two superb saves, that they had the chances. But there was never really a sense that they would equalise. The rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone in injury time was less a rousing call to one last surge than a mournful hymn of defiance.

Carlo Ancelotti has now won the Champions League four times as a manager.
Carlo Ancelotti has now won the Champions League four times as a manager. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Those two saves were a large part of it, the sort of stops that sap belief. For the first, Courtois charged across his goal and hurled himself at Mohamed Salah’s feet as he attempted to lift the ball over his shin. There was pace, aggression and reading of the game. The second came after Salah had fashioned a chance for himself from very little.

He bore down on a goal that seemed almost to grow before the majesty of his first touch, he opened his body, angled his foot, prepared to score the sort of goal that defined his form before Christmas. And then, from nowhere, there was Courtois’ green-clad arm thrusting up to push the ball away. The way three teammates leapt upon the Belgian was indication of just what an exceptional save it had been.

That Courtois has been, alongside Benzema, probably Madrid’s best player says a lot for how their season has gone. At the very last he was there, claiming a cross from the left in a crowded box and giving it one last punt downfield. Luka Modric ran straight to him at the final whistle and he was soon engulfed. For the modern elite, goalkeepers may occasionally be the heroes in one-off games but it’s unusual for them to be quite so central over the course of a season.

But this has not been a normal season for Madrid. They have survived by their nerve, by their capacity to produce moments of brilliance when they have needed them. The way Courtois has saved them again and again is in part a measure of his own excellence, but also of the fact that this is not a Madrid that can control games. They have needed Benzema to convert an absurd proportion of his chances, they have needed Modric to conjure magical passes again and again, and they have benefited from Vinícius’s growing danger running in behind the opposing full-back.

Perhaps if you have enough great players still just about firing, that is enough. Modric’s outside of the boot pass to Benzema to equalise against Chelsea at the Bernabéu is the defining moment of their campaign because it required such virtuosity at such a vital time. Stars are ageing and Kylian Mbappé, who had seemed Madrid’s future for so long, will not be arriving any time soon. There is rebuilding to be done, but the essence of Madrid, that sense of belief, remains as strong as ever.

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And so in an era when most managers espouse a philosophy, when we talk of grand tactical schema and the dominance of Pep Guardiola’s juego de posición and Jürgen Klopp’s gegenpressing, the first manager to win the Champions League four times is Carlo Ancelotti, who is as mutable and pragmatic as they come. He has only ever won five league titles in his career and last season ended for him with a 5-0 defeat for Everton at Manchester City. Plans? Who needs them? Not Madrid, not yet.



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