Real Madrid embellishes Champions League legacy by beating Liverpool for 14th European title

PARIS — And now it’s 14 for Real Madrid, which is more than the next two most successful clubs in Europe — AC Milan have seven, Liverpool six — combined.

And now Carlo Ancelotti has four as a coach, which is more than anyone else. (“I’m a record holder!” he says, both incredulous and self-effacing.)

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And now Kylian Mbappe’s snub isn’t so infuriating – it must be satisfying to win a European Cup in his home town, a 10-minute scooter ride from where he was born and raised. (Or, as club president Florentino Perez said after the game: “Mbappe is forgotten now and it’s okay…Madrid have had a perfect season.”)

We already know that no club is so closely associated with this trophy: From the debuts of Paco Gento, Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo Di Stefano, to Zinedine Zidane Galactic turn-of-the-millennium era to this outfit, capable of winning five European titles in nine years. But perhaps no team has ever become European champions after overcoming such a tough run in the round of 16: Mbappe’s (and Lionel Messi’s) Paris Saint-Germain, defending champions Chelsea, then Manchester City and Liverpool, No.1 and No.1a in most fans’ unofficial power rankings.

“I can’t say much – it was a really tough Champions League campaign, if anything tonight was easier than previous games,” Ancelotti said. “Main factors? The quality, the mentality, the experience of the veterans, the dynamism and the impact of the young people, all are important. Beyond that? Well, I have never seen anyone win without sometimes being a unlucky too.”

There was no heroic comeback this time around as Liverpool failed to convert the chances they had created before Vinicius Junior’s second-half strike, thanks in large part to long-time member Thibaut Courtois : part octopus, part Gumby, all nerves of steel. But the tools of victory were those they had used in previous rounds: conviction, imperturbability and experience.

Real Madrid arrived at the Stade de France with three weeks of end-of-season games that were de facto pre-season warm-ups. That’s what happens when the arithmetic awards you the league early: you have the luxury of resting and recuperating, tweaking and tinkering, eyes and mind fully focused on the prize. Ancelotti’s line-up reflected that: it may or may not have been his best XI, but it was the one he trusted to start the game, with Fede Valverde wide on the right doing double duty as a winger in attack, a fourth midfielder without the ball.

Liverpool’s pursuit of the quadruple meant Jurgen Klopp didn’t have that luxury. True, he rested the players when he could, but he still had a hard-fought FA Cup final against full-strength Chelsea to contend with just two weeks ago, and in any case, mental exhaustion to be one point behind eventual Premier League champions City cannot be understated. He was also able to call on, on paper, his first-choice XI, but the mood was different. From Virgil van Dijk to Mohamed Salah to Fabinho and Thiago Alcantara, it was like veterans wearily returning to the front after a day of calm – not quite 100 per cent, but hungry to empty it.

With kick-off delayed nearly 40 minutes by away security concerns, which saw some fans sprayed with pepper spray, the tension only grew as the minutes went into the game. The delays were so great that both teams returned to the field to warm up again.

The game went as planned at first. When Madrid tried to play from the back, they encountered the central double barrier of Salah and Sadio Mane, with Luis Diaz on the left and Jordan Henderson or Trent Alexander-Arnold on the right. When they were looking for the long “out ball” (most often towards Vinicius), Ibrahima Konaté was often there to meet him step by step.

So it was no surprise that Madrid’s first extended spell of possession in Liverpool’s half didn’t come until around the 25th minute. Before that, Courtois had to make two key saves on Salah and lean on the post after Mane passed Eder Militao, created space where there was none and fired against the woodwork.

Madrid were on the ropes, but they are a team that can both dazzle and suffer. There was Dani Carvajal matching Diaz’s quick flash and pushing the ball, generating a roar from the white-clad mass behind the Madrid goal. There was David Alaba, demanding and receiving a massive chest punch from his defensive partner, Militao. They needed a spark and they got it with the way they defended.

At the other end, there wasn’t much. The highlight should have been Benzema’s goal – not the one he scored which was then disallowed due to a fiendishly complicated (but ultimately correct…probably?) interpretation of the offside rule and what which constitutes ‘playing the ball’, but the one he didn’t, in the same room, when he killed a long pass out of the sky, froze Alisson with a feint, but then froze, unable to bury his luck.

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1:28

Craig Burley explains why Thibaut Courtois’ excellent goalkeeping game propelled Real Madrid to a Champions League final victory.

Was it Madrid’s break? Was this the moment they hadn’t seized? The die they do not have carp? No. Because they had another one just before the hour mark. Valverde forced his way down the right flank and Benzema, the thinking man’s centre-forward, cut at the near post. He took Konaté with him, which was logical, but he also sucked in Alexander-Arnold, who was a few meters from his central defender. This allowed Vinicius, a ghost on the other flank, to slip through and meet Valverde’s hard and low cross, directing it past Alisson.

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Vinicius and Valverde, once Madrid’s future, have combined to define the present and in doing so have shown that the future is right now. Both arrived at 18, the first with much hype and fanfare as a Brazilian prodigy, the latter almost an afterthought as a Uruguayan grafter. Both have also been instrumental in their own way this season. Vinicius had a stellar season playing Robin against Benzema’s Batman with a slew of goals and assists, while Valverde showed the kind of reliability and helmet flexibility that made the hybrid 4-3-3 formation possible. / 4-4-2 from Ancelotti. There’s a lot of talk about Madrid veterans and rightly so, but these two have taken things to the next level under Ancelotti this season.

In the other dugout, Klopp shook his head and dispatched the cavalry – first Diogo Jota, then Roberto Firmino. The odds came: Perhaps the best of the lot was Salah’s finishing, which Courtois seemed to deflect somehow with his bicep, spreading like a paintball splatter.

“Today nobody was going to take away my desire to win the Champions League, I was going to win it,” Courtois said after the game and anyone who saw what he achieved, especially on Mane and Salah , would tend to believe it.

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1:32

Steve Nicol explains how Real Madrid managed to score the decisive goal against Liverpool in the Champions League final.

As the clock ticked down to injury time, Liverpool supporters raised a chorus of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” into the Parisian skies. And indeed, they will not. Moments later, the Madrid supporters responded with the jerky shout: “Asi! Asi! Asi gana el Madrid!(“That’s how it is! That’s how it is! That’s how Madrid win!”) They weren’t wrong either.

At the final whistle, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric embraced, while Benzema trotted and patted Kroos on the back.

“It was perhaps the most difficult Champions League [win]”, Benzema said. “We showed everyone that we are alive and we are here and we won.”

It looked like one of those old movies they show on Saturday afternoons in which the gang successfully reunites for one last big heist. Except, even without Mbappe, you suspect it won’t be their last – not when there’s a guy like Ancelotti, one of the few men who can pull off the cardigan-cigar-shades combo. and leading a team in transition to a league and cup double. Not with young guns – Vinicius, Valverde, Eduardo Camavinga, Rodrygo – already with the ‘big one’ under their belt. Not with Courtois, at the peak of his career, claiming to be the world No.1 between the posts and getting rid of a few things. (“We have shown again who is the king of Europe.”)

Not with the culture and expectation of success that dwells”Casa Blanca.”

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