Real Madrid play the waiting game and are victors by stealth once more | Barney Ronay

Estimated read time 5 min read

You didn’t think it would happen this time, did you? That old white mischief, the magic of the Meringues, those ghostly hands losing their grip on the day? I find your lack of faith disturbing.

For 72 minutes at Wembley Stadium this Champions League final churned and simmered. Perhaps to the untrained eye it might have looked like the team in yellow and black was dominating. Jude Bellingham played like a man trying to remember what Jude Bellingham does. Borussia Dortmund had vigour and drive.

All the noise inside the stadium was coming from that portable yellow wall, while the Real Madrid end sat quietly and waited for victory to happen. Welcome to act one. Also known as The Bit Where They Make You Think You’re Going to Win.

When the moment came there was a kind of stillness to it, a relax of air, and also a feeling of recognition, like a puzzle being solved. OK then. This way, this time. Dani Carvajal is 5ft 7in tall. As Toni Kroos took a corner from the left flank he was marked by Niclas Füllkrug who is 6ft 2in.

And of course Carvajal still somehow leapt unchallenged, alone in all that Wembley air, with time to angle his neck and nudge the ball gently into the Dortmund net, a small man in a white shirt doing what he wants just when it matters most.

A few minutes later Vinícius Júnior made it 2-0, as the score would remain to the end, a goal you might have described as the killer, if this match wasn’t already stretched out on the slab, in a state of pre-death even as it kicked and roared and beat its chest. The celebrations were cinematic and stylised and for the Dortmund fans in that corner, incredibly annoying. But well, this is just what happens. Delirium tends to contain some element of surprise. Delirium is for other people.

Vinícius Júnior scores Real Madrid’s second goal as Mats Hummels watches on.View image in fullscreen

What to make of this Madrid team now, champions of Europe again, and a significant link in that dynastic chain? It was notable that as Carvajal opened the scoring Carlo Ancelotti turned away from the pitch, dressed as ever all in black, white shirt, three-quarter-length overcoat, like a Sopranos uncle. Something in Ancelotti’s manner always seems to say: I am simply a conduit here, which is of course part of his shtick, his power, his aura.

But clearly something is happening here. Madrid completed another double at Wembley (they don’t win a lot of Copa del Reys. It feels like an act of humility. Kind of are the Rey, so … But you go ahead).

They are now the 15-time winners of this trophy, victors in its final year of the current form, two in four years now since the end of the age of galácticos. They were also, in that familiar way, victors by stealth, will and execution. Skill, not magic.

It was a strange game from the start. Wembley was a gorgeous place at kick-off, the roof lamps blending with the evening gloom, creating a kind of silvery-white haze. Of all the moments not to stage a Lenny Kravitz gig, this felt right up there. And yet a Lenny Kravitz gig happened all the same. Hopefully Big Kravitz benefits from this in the shape of downloads and baffled Google searches, because nobody else does.

After which Madrid were vague and lacking in pattern, harried by Dortmund’s energy, Bellingham was poor, uncertain in his movement and his passing. Dortmund pushed. They kept almost but not quite bursting in on goal. Welcome to the bit where you start to actually think, no, seriously, this time is different.

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Still Madrid had control, of a kind. They were prepared to wait, knowing their own strengths. Because of course in the end this isn’t about magic at all. Madrid know how to win and have won before. But there is an obvious champion method here both in the construction of this team and the way it plays.

Just scroll down the list. One understated aspect is the spine of “Pavóns”. There were three youth team products in the starting XI here. Rodrygo, Vinícius, Eduardo Camavinga, even Bellingham are star players who came to Madrid as teenagers.

This is the model. Madrid have out-Dortmunded Dortmund, have taken that business model and scaled up into the realm of the overclass. Buy young. Buy pre-galácticos, fashion them in your image. Energy and pressing. Players as commodities. Keep winning as you go. What room does this leave for disruption and youth and fearlessness? They’re already doing it, just more grandly.

There is no magic in the tactics either, which are often wrongly interpreted as an absence of tactics. But every elite team is wedded to strict and unbending positional play, what happens when a team with the same level of skilfully commits to playing in a more creative, off-the-cuff, “relationist” style? Well, something like this perhaps.

At the end of which, as this format is gerrymandered into something else, Madrid have created a final mini-era. Vinícius has been outstanding in two finals. Ancelotti has won five of them with two different clubs and three different teams.

And even football’s richest, most aristocratic club has managed to express a way of playing that speaks to freedom, creativity and clarity of thought in the moment; disguised very helpfully at times, as a kind of white magic.


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