Published On: Sat, May 26th, 2018

Real Madrid's individual brilliance behind dynastic Champions League run

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It happened again. Of course it did. Real Madrid‘s talent was just too much for Liverpool, just as it was too much for Juventus the year before and Atletico Madrid before that.

Los Blancos took over after Mohamed Salah‘s unfortunate injury, dominating possession and, more importantly, playing the match at their pace. Liverpool’s frenetic press no longer mattered so much. The game slowed down so Madrid – the more methodical of the two sides – could simply express itself.

The psychological blow of losing Salah clearly rocked the Reds, and Loris Karius‘ two calamitous errors gifted goals to a Madrid team that didn’t need any help.

Related: Super-sub Bale inspires Real Madrid to Champions League glory over Liverpool

But it was also a contest decided by individual heroics – as many of Madrid’s matches are. Few managers have the luxury of introducing a player of Gareth Bale‘s quality off the bench. Fewer players still can make as big of an impact as the Welshman did.

His spectacular overhead kick deflated the most confident Liverpool supporter. A hopeless, helpless feeling prevailed, just as it did in the stomachs of Juventus fans who stood idly as Cristiano Ronaldo leaped over Mattia De Sciglio for that quarter-final wonder goal.

No one can stop that – and that is precisely the point. Madrid’s march to greatness, supplemented by Saturday’s 3-1 win over Liverpool in Kyiv, has largely been fuelled by the sense of inevitability. It’s not because Madrid’s system is technically better than any other team in the top five European leagues. There’s no distinct philosophy about Madrid, no collective enterprise, only a singular focus on being the best. Zidane has let his players be the talented players they are, keeping the instructions to a minimum. It’s far away from predecessor Rafa Benitez’s rigorous form of management.

“(Zidane) tells us what we need to do in the defensive part and in the game to express ourselves, to keep the ball, to play for the team, and to try to do our best,” midfielder Luka Modric said after last year’s final.

Unlike contemporaries Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte, Zidane doesn’t motion this way and that or bark at his team every five seconds. He’s a beacon of cool, perhaps something he learned as an assistant to the calm Carlo Ancelotti when they won La Decima in 2014. He has unconditional trust in this crop of players, so much so that he started the exact same lineup that took the pitch in Cardiff just 12 months ago.

With the players always at ease, unrestrained by rigid tactics and confident in their abilities, they’ve done remarkable things. Zidane has even managed to stimulate his players on the bench, to keep them positive despite a lack of minutes. Bale’s overhead kick was ridiculous, but his audacious outside-the-boot pass late in the match was just as indicative of Madrid’s uninhibited spirit.

Then there is the supporting cast. Modric didn’t put a foot wrong. His passes were simple and effective, and he continuously spun his way out of trouble. Isco was allowed to roam about the pitch and Karim Benzema, whistled and jeered by Madrid’s faithful for an apparent lack of goals, did what a striker is supposed to do, showing an alertness of mind to deflect Karius’ misguided throw into the net.

Ronaldo didn’t have to be at his best because when one Madrid player is struggling, there’s another producing the goods. It’s a relay race of talent.

That’s also the reason why this particular side isn’t considered among the best ever. It’s not yet spoken in the same reverent tones as the Ajax of the 1970s or the AC Milan of the late ’80s or the Barcelona of the late 2000s. It’s missing that systematic dominance that defines those teams, as well as a style that’s easy on the eye.

And yet it’s not accurate to say Madrid fluked its way to another final. Zidane’s men dispatched the winners of Ligue 1, Serie A, and the Bundesliga en route to Kyiv. That’s more than luck. Madrid made it three Champions League titles in a row by scoring in big moments and limiting the errors it made along the way. A simple, if not fancy, formula.

Winning is just ingrained in Madrid’s soul. The destination always counts more than the journey.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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