For the second time in three years, fierce city rivals Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid both reached the Champions League final – meaning that the two would again face off for the ultimate prize in club football. Atleti suffered late heartbreak back in Lisbon in 2013/14, leading 1-0 for the vast majority of the match before conceding in the 93rd minute and then capitulating in extra-time, so this game offered them an opportunity for revenge as well as, more importantly, the chance to win their first ever European Cup. As for Real Madrid, a win in Milan would allow them to pick up their 11th title and extend their legacy as the most successful side in the history of the competition.
Neither side made any real shocks with their starting line-ups. Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid set-up in their usual 4-3-3 shape, with Casemiro acting as the midfield anchor between Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić, while their infamous front three were all available to play. Atleti meanwhile were in their 4-4-2 system, the only slight question mark being Diego Simeone’s preference to partner Diego Godín with Stefan Savić at the back, rather than José María Giménez, perhaps due to the young Uruguayan’s greater potential to be erratic.
The game started off at quite a feisty tempo, largely because of Atleti’s high intensity off the ball in the opening stages. Pressing early on is a technique that they’ve employed numerous times, including in the first leg of their semi-final against Bayern Munich, and by pushing high and reacting well to the positioning of the ball (as well as making a few tactical fouls) they really hurt Real Madrid’s ability to progress possession well from the back.
As a result of that pressing and the defensive line being quite deep, Atleti’s shape wasn’t very compact in a vertical sense. That wouldn’t have necessarily been a problem had the intensity and quality of the closing down remained intact, especially as Real Madrid’s possession structure is often fairly poor as top sides go, but surprisingly for them that dropped off fairly quickly. They still pressed and stretched themselves, though their ball-orientation started growing laboured and by playing horizontal balls Real Madrid found easy opportunities for combination play near the touchlines, mostly between the centre-back, full-back and midfielder on whichever side they moved the ball over to.
On the left side of the pitch that meant Sergio Ramos, Marcelo and Kroos, while on the right it was Pepe, Dani Carvajal and Modrić. The two midfielders regularly pulled wider into the half-spaces, and crucially they were thus able to exploit Atleti’s lack of compactness with vertical passes beyond Los Rojiblancos’ midfield. Even before that the pair had already been showing some truly excellent examples of ball retention when they were pressed, but now they were in their element; making the most of the space and regularly finding one of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema or Cristiano Ronaldo (who dropped deeper to receive and rotated well to create better passing lanes) between the lines whenever the chance arose.
Real Madrid didn’t create too much in open play from these at first – though that trio up front running into space was a clear threat for Atleti to look out. Had things continued as they were it’s likely that Simeone would’ve either instructed his team to move deeper to limit space or looked for another way to reduce the influence of Kroos and Modrić, but in the 15th minute one of their fouls came back to haunt them. Real Madrid had already created a big opportunity from a set-piece earlier on after Bale was brought down in the midst of a mazy run, Casemiro forcing Jan Oblak into a brilliant reaction stop from that delivery, and they made the most of this chance when Kroos whipped the ball in from the left side.
The German’s cross didn’t go too far into the box, though Bale (again the one who was fouled here) cleverly dropped deep and flicked the pass on further into the area. This second phase caused chaos for Atleti, and Ramos got a gentle touch on the ball with his stretched left leg which ended up being enough to take it past Oblak. It was from a marginally offside position, but the goal stood and Real Madrid had their 1-0 lead.
Now behind, even with so long left to go, Atleti couldn’t particularly afford to drop into a deeper shape. So they kept hold of a very similar defensive plan and the Real Madrid midfield trio continued to move the ball around too easily for their liking, although it was now Atleti who began to have greater periods of possession and established a hold on the final.
Simeone’s team in this 4-4-2 shape isn’t really one that’s built to chase a game however, and while they kept the ball they weren’t doing much with it. Filipe Luís was a good attacking outlet from left-back and Koke drifting in from the same side helped to give them superiority in the middle, especially when Saúl Ñíguez did the same from the right side of the midfield, but they didn’t make the most of that midfield dominance. Their possession structure was very flat and lacked depth, those midfielders often being in the same line and offering nothing more than a horizontal passing lane to one another.
Up front, Torres having virtually no involvement when it came to offering a way for the midfield (completed by Augusto Fernández and Gabi) to progress the ball didn’t help their cause. Griezmann was floating around a lot higher up and managed to find gaps between the lines of Real Madrid’s 4-3-3 defensive structure every so often, so it’s not as if the space wasn’t there at all for Atleti, but even when he did get a rare chance to receive in those positions the lack of supporting runs from the midfield meant he was very isolated. That led to the Frenchman either being crowded off the ball, or forced into a couple of ambitious efforts from range which failed to trouble Keylor Navas.
Casemiro deserves credit for doing an excellent defensive job in those zones, often being the one to cover the space and win the ball back, while Pepe and Ramos were ready to step out from the defensive line when required. The two centre-backs were also effective when it came to defending in the penalty area, and either side of them Dani Carvajal and Marcelo, surprisingly conservative in an attacking sense, similarly did well defensively. Throw in the hints of a brief counter-press that they were employing, just doing enough to slow Atleti’s initial build-up phase down every so often, and they made it tough for their opponents.
In clear need of a change if they were going to break Real Madrid down, Atleti made one substitution at half-time: Fernández coming off for Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, the tricky 22-year-old Belgian winger who Simeone has so often introduced when he wants to add a bit more attacking impetus. As well as offering quick bursts of speed and dynamism he also provides tactical flexibility, and enabled his manager to move Koke into a central midfield role. He’d been drifting there anyway, being the most progressive of their midfielders in the first-half, even if that wasn’t much of a challenge, but now he could have a greater influence on the game. Saúl was moved inside as part of that change, too.
As soon as the second-half started there was a much clearer purpose about Atleti, something for Real Madrid to feel threatened by, and it took them less than a minute to create their best chance of the game until now: a penalty. The spot-kick came after Gabi won the ball high up the pitch from Ronaldo, the club’s captain playing a quick forward pass to Koke who then flicked it on to Griezmann. Griezmann then played it into the box towards Torres, and though he’d done almost nothing in the first-half the Spaniard did excellently to get his body in front of Pepe and cause the Portuguese centre-back to clumsily foul him.
Griezmann went on to smash his effort from 12 yards onto the bar, squandering the chance to equalise, but Atleti continued to have a big grip on the game for much of the second-half. Their 4-1-4-1 shape with Carrasco and Griezmann drifting inside from the wide areas was helping to keep those two heavily involved, while Filipe Luís and Juanfran were pushing extremely high and doing a great job of providing width in the place of those wide players when they did move away from the touchline.
The staggered midfield set-up, with Gabi behind Koke and Saúl, also ensured central control and edged them away from the lack of depth issue that they were having during build-up phases in the opening 45 minutes. Some of the problems were still evident, and they perhaps didn’t make the most of their width and space to circulate possession as much as they should’ve, but it was certainly a big improvement from before.
Zidane’s team were forced a fair amount deeper as a result of Atleti’s better usage of the ball. Their hints of a counter-press practically vanished too, the aim of that presumably being to just retain shape rather than risking a positional mistake, thus also lessening the potential of having their defenders stuck in dangerous one-on-one situations. A substitution in the 52nd minute for Real Madrid at a point when they would’ve wanted stability was a pain as well, the injured and visibly emotional Carvajal sadly forced off after a good all-round display for Danilo, and the Brazilian struggled against Atleti’s greater threat on his team’s right side.
It’s not as if they were completely penned in without relief by Atleti however, and Real Madrid had a couple of great opportunities on the break during the second-half. Kroos and Modric continued to be incredibly effective at keeping and distributing the ball, Bale was causing problems whenever he had the chance to run into space, and the clever movement between the Welshman and his two teammates up top remained (although Ronaldo, who wasn’t 100% fit going into the match, wasn’t looking very sharp by this point). They came very close to killing the game in the 78th minute, actually, a Ronaldo effort and then a scramble in the penalty area somehow not being converted after one of Bale’s runs, but it just wouldn’t go in for them.
And with Atleti having deserved a goal for their improvement since the interval, from Real Madrid’s perspective it was quite typical that their rivals would go on to equalise just one minute after they’d been unable to convert their own best chance. Fittingly it was Carrasco who scored it, having been very influential from the moment that Simeone brought him off the bench, and it came after good work on the right flank: Gabi delicately lofting a ball over the top for Juanfran to run onto and cross first-time towards the Belgian winger at the far post. He finished well, and that made it 1-1.
Scoring their goal at this point obviously had good mental connotations for Simeone’s team ahead of the rest of the game, in the sense that they had the momentum from getting a late equaliser, but from a fitness and tactical flexibility point of view they were in pretty good shape now too. While the Argentine still had two subs available to him, Zidane had already used all three of his by the time Carrasco scored – first the forced switch at right-back, then Kroos (for some odd reason) and Benzema coming off for Isco and Lucas Vázquez shorty before the goal.
Atleti were unable to make the most of that advantage though, neither in the remainder of normal time nor in extra-time, and similarly Real Madrid didn’t manage to grab a goal themselves. Unsurprisingly there was nothing of too much tactical interest or uniqueness in those added 30 minutes, the intensity of the final clearly having a big effect on the players and causing the match to be broken up regularly by spells of cramp (which was what Simeone ultimately used his remaining subs on) and stoppages. So the game went to a penalty shootout.
All of the first seven spot-kicks went in, but it was Atleti who missed the eighth; Juanfran stepping up and striking his effort against the post. That left Ronaldo with the chance to win it, and he duly obliged, firing past Oblak and securing another Champions League title for Real Madrid in the process. Celebrations, as well as commiserations, ensued. And that was that.
It perhaps wasn’t the best final in terms of the overall quality of the game, but the two Madrid sides put on one hell of an entertaining spectacle in Milan in many other ways regardless of that. The highs and lows of football were abundantly clear from it - heartbreak in the cruellest possible way for Simeone and his side, a sense of overwhelming joy and relief for Zidane and the white side of the Spanish capital. For what is now the 11th time, the European Cup belongs to Real Madrid.