Real Madrid won their 11th European Cup on Saturday, beating city rivals Atletico Madrid on penalties. After a 1-1 draw in regular time and no goals in extra time, Cristiano Ronaldo scored the final kick in a 5-3 penalty shootout.
Much of the talk prior to this fixture concerned the fact that this was a replay of the 2014 Champions League final. The teams were the same as two years ago but the circumstances were very different: Atletico have brought in new attacking players and have improved even more at the back, shown in their superb defensive performances against both Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Real Madrid, on the other hand, have arguably played worse than they did in 2014. While their performances have improved since the appointment of Zinedine Zidane, their overall play has not matched that of the 13-14 season.
The CL final on Saturday certainly showed the transformation that both sides have undergone over the past two years. Atletico looked even more determined and seemed to have more mental strength than they did in 2014. Real showed great class in the first half – and were certainly the better team in the first 45 – but dropped off after that and let Atletico push up much more. Real still performed pretty well but they didn’t show the drive and attacking power that we saw in 2014.
While they were probably the better side on the night, Atletico did not deserve the win. They ultimately didn’t have many chances (only four shots on target) and couldn’t take advantage of Real Madrid’s performance drop after half time.
It felt like an unfulfilling match not because “the better team lost” but because of the comparison of this match to the 2014 final. That game two years ago fully lived up to expectations. It is remembered for a vibrant Atletico display, an extraordinary comeback, and the best Real Madrid side we’ve seen in over a decade. It was easy to root for either team, both of whom had impressive domestic and European campaigns. If anything, as neutrals, seeing Atletico win La Liga and Real Madrid win the Champions League felt like a good combination. It wasn’t easy to see Atletico lose, but at least they had a successful domestic season.
The 2016 final was not a bad match by any stretch but it did not have the same ingredients that we had in 2014. There was no dramatic late comeback or extraordinary extra-time finish. Neither team truly deserved the win. This time, it was very hard to see Atletico lose, especially after their outstanding performances earlier in the competition.
But perhaps the moment that made the game most unsatisfying was Ronaldo’s winning penalty kick. In the 2014 final, Ronaldo had a quiet but nonetheless decent game. When he scored the penalty for Real’s fourth goal, he took off his shirt and celebrated wildly. Regardless of your thoughts on Ronaldo, and while his celebration could have been seen as overboard, he was at that time playing the best football in the world. He was performing exceptionally well, right at a time between winning the 2013 Ballon D’Or and the 2014 award later that year. He and his team were celebrating a quite extraordinary comeback that game and were about to win Real Madrid’s 10th European Cup. Ronaldo’s celebration – in my opinion – seemed fitting.
In yesterday’s match, Ronaldo’s celebration was similar to that of the 2014 final but it certainly felt different. The Portuguese was very poor in Saturday’s match, offering almost no contribution to the match. He had a game to forget, until of course he stepped up to take the last kick in the penalty shootout. His celebration can be understood – after all, it was the penalty that won Real the 2016 Champions League – but it left a sour taste to the game. He didn’t deserve the limelight on this day and maybe Real Madrid didn’t deserve it at all. Their win will be seen by many as a triumph, but it doesn’t come anywhere near the superb final of 2014.