The Champions League is designed to be all about watching the very best take each other on, and this year’s final offered us the opportunity to see exactly that. Convincing title-winners in Italy and Spain respectively, Juventus and Real Madrid met in Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium to decide who would take home the most prestigious trophy in club football. Between them they had 13 titles prior to kick-off. The question was who would get the 14th.
Juventus’ set-up was effectively a flexible hybrid shape. They switched between a 4-4-1-1 and a 3-4-3 depending on the phase of play, with Alex Sandro and Andrea Barzagli acting as the full-backs in the former when they didn’t have the ball. In possession, though, Barzagli would move central, Alex Sandro pushing up the left flank and Dani Alves offering the width on the opposite side. Mario Mandžukić meanwhile continued in his role as an unorthodox winger, while Argentina internationals Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuaín played in more advanced central positions.
For Zinedine Zidane, the only real decision revolved around whether to pick the in-form Isco or the recovering Gareth Bale who hadn’t played in a match for over a month. Understandably, he went with the Spaniard. That meant a loose sort of 4-4-2 with a diamond that had Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić forming the rest of the midfield – leaving Karim Benzema and that man, Cristiano Ronaldo, up top.
Before it started this was a game that was built up as a great defence versus a great attack. In truth it was always going to be much more than that, though, and to so offhandedly neglect the offensive potency of this Juventus side with that lazy narrative would be to disregard half of what makes them such a good team. They were the ones who came flying out the blocks, actually, quickly establishing a foothold in the Madrid half and piling the pressure on.
Width proved to be a big issue for Madrid early on. The flaw of that narrow midfield was that it gave space out wide for Juventus to maintain possession and then attack, meaning Alex Sandro, Alves and Mandžukić got heavily involved for Massimo Allegri’s team. On top of the system advantage they had out wide, Juventus similarly had a numerical advantage when it came to playing out from the back.
Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini all regularly had plenty of time on the ball, Madrid largely relying on Isco pushing forward from midfield to support Benzema (because Ronaldo off the ball is, well, Ronaldo) if they wanted to put any pressure on: and even then they were still outnumbered. So it was relatively easy for them, with the help of Sami Khedira and Miralem Pjanić in midfield too, to keep possession when they wanted.
Madrid also struggled in attack, largely because of Juventus’ adaptability in their defensive shape. When someone went to press they almost always had support, yet somehow they also managed to fill in the gap that’s left by the player stepping up as well – the intensity they consistently operate at, both on a physical and a mental level, is nothing short of incredible. Finding a route between the midfield and attack became tricky as a result of the space between the lines being so limited. Kroos and Modrić may have retained the ball when needed, but progressing it was tough, even for a duo of their immense quality.
Not playing especially well and scoring anyway is something that Zidane’s Madrid have made a bit of a habit of, however. And nobody more so than Ronaldo. The Portuguese forward was basically anonymous in the opening 19 minutes; in the 20th he combined with Dani Carvajal on the right and finished well first-time (albeit with the aid of a slight deflection) to give his team the lead.
Juventus could understandably have felt hard done by because of that. They didn’t take their foot off the pedal though, responding well and levelling things up pretty soon afterwards. And not just in any ordinary fashion, either. Instead it was one of the all-time great Champions League final goals, Mandžukić controlling the ball with his chest just inside the box before acrobatically firing an overhead kick past the Madrid goalkeeper.
Some criticism was understandably directed Keylor Navas’ way for his reaction to the effort in the aftermath. Mostly for the now somewhat clichéd ‘going with the wrong hand’ thing, though given the location of the ball compared to his body and the extra reach he could achieve with his right arm it was a fair decision; instead his footwork was more to blame if anything. But at the same time, to take any praise away from the Croatian for that moment of magic feels harsh, so y’know.
The aggressive, creative approach that the Italians adopted before then continued until the half-time whistle blew, and neither side made any personnel switches during the interval. What did change, though, and quite drastically at that, was the tone of the game. If Juventus controlled the first-half, then Madrid most definitely dominated the second. They restricted their opponents to just one, off-target effort on goal, recording an impressive 11 for themselves, and ultimately their irresistible ruthlessness in attack shone through.
Yet it was in midfield where the battle was really won – and while Zidane doesn’t often get much praise for his tactical adjustments he should here. Kroos was moved into a more central role, while Isco and Modrić went to the left and right of him respectively, giving Madrid a far better balance in possession that they could then utilise to its full extent. All three were extraordinary for the remainder of the game, nobody more so than Modrić, who further cemented his position as one of the best midfielders of his generation with his display here.
Casemiro, operating just behind that trio, was also excellent. Dybala’s failure to get involved in the second-half had a lot to do with him, Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane positioning themselves well to cut off space, and as ever that provided a perfect foil for the rest of the team to play their natural game. And with what effectively became four versus two, with Khedira and Pjanić badly outnumbered, Madrid easily took control
The Brazilian grabbed what would eventually prove to be the winning goal in the 61st minute too, when his shot from range was (cruelly for Juventus, again) deflected into the back of the net. Gianluigi Buffon having one more chance to try and claim the Champions League winners’ medal that’s thus far evaded him was one of the big storylines around this match, but to be helplessly beaten twice in such circumstances showed that the football gods offered him no mercy in Cardiff.
This Madrid side have no room in them for sentimentality either, and two very quickly became three. Ronaldo got his brace, converting home a quite exquisite cross on the stretch from Modrić, extending the lead to a point that Juventus never looked like coming back from. Their performance had been disappointingly tame since play resumed after half-time, and that continued from then until the end of the match.
Straight after the third goal they did try and mix things up a little at least. Juan Cuadrado came on in place of Barzagli, leading to Alves going back to right-back and a switch to a more permanent 4-2-3-1 shape, however it didn’t have the desired effect. Madrid were rampant, Juventus looked drained, and there wasn’t really anything they could do about.
A late second yellow for Cuadrado for quite frankly nothing (a ‘push’ on Ramos) looked to be the final instance of salt being rubbed into the wound for Allegri’s men. Yet there was still time for substitute Marco Asensio to make it four from off the bench, Marcelo joining Carvajal in assisting a goal from full-back and completing what proved to be a rout in the second-half. And then the final whistle went.
Heartbreak for Juventus, who’ve now lost all of their last five finals in the competition, but euphoria for Madrid. After waiting so long for number ten, at least by their high standards anyway, three titles in four years means that they now have La Duodecima to their name. In doing so they also became the first club to retain the Champions League; if anyone was ever going to, then it’s fitting that the most successful club in the history of the competition were the ones to achieve it.
This article was written by Daniel Butler, the editor of The Tactics Room and the owner of the site's official Twitter account (which you can follow here).