The Guardiola effect
In the year leading up to the Brazilian World Cup Bayern Munich, who the year before had already won everything in spectacular fashion under the coach they had ushered off the stage, Jupp Heynckes, perhaps unnecessarily brought in supermanager Pep Guardiola who had spent a year on hiatus. For Guardiola one solution fit all, and Bayern devolved into a kind of meta version of themselves, exactly like Barcelona 2012, Guardiola’s previous year on the scene. This hadn’t been immediately obvious, as Bayern won virtually every game in the German season and turned the German league into a mockery. One by one Bayern would sabotage challenger Borussia Dortmund by repeatedly purchasing and appropriating Dortmund’s go-to men. They appeared a shoe-in to retain the Champions League title, still a step too far for anyone in the entire history of that competition. But their new Barcelona-without-Messi ultra-possession style was, in the end, revealed to have the exact same weaknesses as Barcelona had had the year before in ironically losing 7-0 to Bayern. Guardiola had taken the strength and directness out of their game, leaving a set of players who passed the ball around and around and around but who foundered upon reaching the penalty area, much like Spain before them. ‘Tiki taka’ was dead, the critics exclaimed.
In the season’s key matchup, Real Madrid vs. Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-final, Real at home scored a counterattacking tap-in with their only attack of the match, while Bayern passed and pressed and yet floundered, a reversal of the clubs’ historical styles. But the return in Germany left no room to doubt who had cleverly taken advantage of whose weaknesses. By twenty minutes in Real centre-back Sergio Ramos had twice scored from headers from dead balls, the usual bugbear of arty teams, which Bayern unexpectedly now were.
The rest of the first half was similarly shambolic for Bayern. Goalie Manuel Neuer, a fixture of all the high profile German teams this new decade (and often the face of their most shattering defeats), twice left the penalty box unattended to act as a sweeper-keeper and cleared straight to Real players, who twice missed the target with long pings at the empty goal. (Neuer would, however, star with this approach in a key World Cup game for Germany against Algeria two months later.)
Not to worry for Real, who added another smooth counterattacking goal to Ronaldo before half-time. He ecstatically flashed the number 15 with his fingers (‘quince’, he mouthed repeatedly) to revel in the breaking of another individual record. An hour later at the end he drilled a free kick under the jumping wall and Bayern, Europe’s premier team, had crashed 4-0 at home, 5-0 on aggregate.
Shoehorn the superstars
This season Real Madrid had turned to Carlo Ancelotti, of Milan 2003-7 fame. His old trick with Milan had been the knack for shoehorning as many A-list stars into one team as possible and managing multiple egos. With Milan that had proven great for short bursts of concentration in the Champions League but not sustainable over a 38-match league campaign. So it proved again here with Real Madrid. To Real, their long 12-year drought without a Champions League title had made La Décima, Real Madrid’s potential tenth European crown, a painful, achingly desired quest that far outshone league activity. This, and Real’s penchant for repeatedly purchasing world stars as a mark of their power completely at the expense of team balance, made Ancelotti the perfect manager if only for their particular cause.
He altered systems to fit his players rather than the opposite. Gareth Bale, a Welshman in his first year at Real, and Ronaldo were inconsistent as pure players but nonetheless speedy and prolific goal-scorers on the attacking wings. In midfield Luca Modric, a classy Croatian passer finally given licence post-Mourinho, and Argentine Angel Di Maria, the opposite, a frustrating all-action winger who ran with the ball and was a manic standout in the season’s closing stages, were the influences in midfield.
They were imposing, speedy and direct. But they were not always dominant, ripped apart and hanging on in the quarter-final against Borussia Dortmund. Meanwhile in Spain itself they were shockingly outlasted not by Barcelona but instead by a threadbare squad who were undoubtedly the phenomenon of the year.
The bullied no longer
Atletico Madrid had spent years and years as Madrid’s joke of a second club, shattered by but also revelling in their lack of success. Scrappy old boy, the messianic Argentine Diego Simeone, perfectly suited to the cause, took over as manager in the middle of one of their periodic crises of mediocrity in 2011. He kept the club true to itself but revolutionised their results. Still scrappy, still fighters, under Simeone they now began to win. The 2012 Europa League (ex-UEFA Cup) was won emphatically, spearheaded by the unstoppable Colombian forward Radamel Falcao, who after dominating that competition twice in a row with two different clubs should have headed to the top to test his credentials against the very best, which one suspected he was. Instead he followed the money, made a series of baffling career choices and disappeared. He was then ruled out injured for the only time to shine remaining for him, the 2014 World Cup, in which James Rodriguez became Colombia’s undisputed rising world star instead of him.
Atletico had not beaten Real in a single match since 1999. In 2013 this trend continued even as Atletico rose to be Spain’s third force, but at season’s end in the Copa del Rey final (at Real’s home ground) Atletico clung on and triumphed 2-1 in extra time, centre-back stalwart Miranda scoring the winner and dedicating it to the kids like his son who get made fun of at school for supporting Atletico. It was Jose Mourinho’s last match in charge of Real, an exhausting spell symbolically ended by Mourinho being banished to the stands as all fell down.
In 2014 Atletico, incredibly the same players that had been lurching around in 2011, grafted win after win in the Spanish league and also advanced through the Champions League with gritty class. Prodigy Belgian goalkeeper Thibault Courtois had spent three consecutive years on loan at cash-strapped Atletico, their successful years, a dangerous precedent of a loanee staying at one place long enough to develop emotional ties. The gluttonous chickens would come home to roost for Chelsea, his technical owner, when Atletico (including Courtois) defeated them in the Champions League semi-final.
Besides him and new find Diego Costa up front they were otherwise a starless team, for whom injuries eventually took their toll. In May, after reaching the Champions League final, they and the other Spanish clubs ran out of steam, with Atletico failing to win their final four matches of the season. The same players in Atletico’s basic squad had fronted the do-or-die of not just the Champions League knockouts but also the new need for three points in Spain each and every week, and their two go-to forwards, Diego Costa and Arda Turan, both missed the final two silverware-deciding matches.
Fortunately, Barca and Real were also prematurely burnt out. It left the incredible scenario in which an undeserving Barcelona, the last dregs from the years of glory, had the chance to defeat Atletico at home on the last day of the league season to win the Spanish title. Atletico denied them at Camp Nou, centre-back Diego Godin’s header securing a battling 1-1 draw and a cathartic party for a team whose budget was a fifth of that of the usual suspects. The Barcelona crowd gave them a standing ovation.
Atletico Madrid were the Champions of Spain. But in battling to the end while Real Madrid had prematurely given up, the two approached the Champions League final in completely different physical states. Two separate matches in one ensued. The first lasted 92 minutes, in which Atletico’s strikerless worker ants relied on hustle, luck and Casillas’ calamitous error in goal to defend a 1-0 lead by the skin of their fingertips. Casillas himself was declining, but at Real Madrid few ever tell the emperor he’s wearing no clothes (as it was with Raul before him).
The second match began seconds before Atletico won the Champions League, when Real centre-back (a recurring theme) Sergio Ramos headed in a corner kick. Atletico Madrid had lost their first European crown in the last minute identically to their historical defeat in 1974. The exhausted Atletico then conceded three further goals in the last ten minutes of extra time as Di Maria, in his last game for Real Madrid, ran riot. Cristiano Ronaldo, underdone and quiet in this match, put in a worthless penalty at the end and confirmed his me-first attitude forevermore by ripping his shirt off and gesticulating, a pathetic gesture. Still, he had ended the Champions League season with 17 goals, an individual record. It seemed that after years of second-fiddling he had outlasted even the great Leo Messi.
Atletico’s injuries, exhaustion and lack of backups were an object lesson in why the Champions League can ‘never’ be won by anyone but the superclubs. In typical Atletico manner, even the year of their ultimate triumph was tinged. But they would always have Spain. Meanwhile, Real could smile again after ten-plus years as an also-ran, finally securing La Décima.