Tuesday night’s emphatic victory in Turin was an all-too-familiar story for Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid in European football.
It is easy to forget the Frenchman has only been in the dugout at the Bernabeu for 27 months yet he is now eyeing up a third successive Champions League title.
Before last year’s triumph – fittingly, secured with a thumping victory over Juventus – no side had successfully defended the title, in the modern era.
The first, in 2016, had more than element of good fortune. A ‘kind’ draw pitted Madrid against Roma, Wolfsburg and Manchester City on the way to the final, with the tournament sealed with a penalty shootout victory over Atletico Madrid.
Of course, every European Cup title is a great source of pride for any club but this version – the club’s record 11th trophy - was not a true test of Madrid’s capabilities. Zidane was fortunate, it was argued.
Last season, Los Blancos stormed to a La Liga and Champions League ‘double’ and this time there could be no questions over Zidane’s acumen.
Napoli, Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and Juventus were dispensed with in their run to European glory, propelled by a killer-instinct in attack and well-balanced side who rose to the occasion in big games, time after time.
Hitting a bump
Madrid had comfortably been Spain’s best team for the opening 18 months of Zidane’s tenure – he won the league in his first full season in charge and almost clawed Barcelona back in the 2015/16 title race after an unimpressive four months of Rafael Benitez’s reign.
Yet a disastrous first half of the current campaign domestically meant that from January onwards, a European title was the only way Zidane could save the season. And, if reports were to be believed, his job.
It is easy in hindsight to suggest their progress past Paris Saint-Germain was predictably but the Parisians were imperious in the group stages – breaking the goal scoring record in the process – and possessed a group of players significantly stronger than the previous campaign.
Everyone knew PSG were capable of a collapse but Madrid never allowed them to build a significant advantage across either leg.
Turning things around
Many commentators still erroneously overlook Madrid’s tremendous resurgence in league form this season: they have won 12 of their last 14 games across all competitions and in their past 16 matches have notched up 53 goals.
Cristiano Ronaldo, who had four La Liga goals in their first half of the season, now has 22 and his tally for the season in all competitions is 39: more than any other player in Europe.
Much has been made of Madrid’s – and Ronaldo’s - capability of peaking in the second half of the season, of producing crucial and decisive performances in important matches.
The Portuguese forward is arguably the greatest goal-scorer in the world yet it is impossible to overlook the flair of Isco, the work-rate of Karim Benzema or the midfield control of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric.
This is a side who did not feature Marco Asensio or Gareth Bale – arguably the best wide forwards in world football – and who have no tangible weaknesses.
Who can stop them?
Barcelona, who they have never previously played in a European Cup final, may prove the best bet.
Madrid’s pride tends to ensure they attack the Catalan giants more-so than other European giants, and in the process leave themselves more vulnerable. Manchester City, managed by former Barca boss Pep Guardiola, could certainly pose problems.
Yet Madrid make every game in this competition look so easy. Players look at home when the Champions League anthem begins to blare, the pressure and expectation are what they thrive under.
No other side appears to be capable of performing at their best in the tournament with a relative lack of experience, balanced with the rigours of domestic football, proving too much.
Don’t bet against Madrid, and Zidane, making it three in a row.
Do you agree that Real Madrid are now the favourites in the Champions League? Let us know by commenting below.