Why Zidane's champs are Real Madrid's greatest since days of Di Stefano
The Galacticos couldn't do it. Not even Ferenc Puskas could do it. But for the first time since 1958, there can be absolutely no argument. Los Blancos are indisputably the best football team anywhere in Europe.
That may seem like an odd statement - Real Madrid won the European Cup eight times in between 1958 and last night's triumph over Juventus in Cardiff. But remarkably, on none of those eight occasions were they La Liga champions in the same season, and officially the best team in Spain.
Real Madrid's league position when they've conquered Europe
- 1st: 1957, 1958, 2017
- 2nd: 1959, 1960, 1966, 2016
- 3rd: 1956, 2002, 2014
- 4th: 1998
- 5th: 2000
Valencia were the Spanish champions when Zinedine Zidane's famous volley helped Real Madrid beat Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League final in 2002. Two years earlier, when they lifted the trophy in Paris, they finished fifth in La Liga, in a year when Deportivo La Coruna were champions.
Perhaps the most memorable Real Madrid side of all, the one that destroyed Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in the 1960 European Cup final at Hampden Park, aided by four goals from Puskas and three from Alfredo Di Stefano, could only finish second in La Liga that season.
The Real Madrid team that edged out Milan in extra time in Brussels two years earlier were the last to be both European and Spanish champions at the same time. Puskas hadn't arrived by then, but Di Stefano scored that day, and did the same as Los Blancos achieved a similar feat a year earlier.
Zidane's current Real Madrid side may not yet be revered in quite the same way as the Galacticos or that 1960 team, but the facts don't lie. This season, they have been consistently great in a way that Real Madrid haven't been for 59 years.
"Today we can say we are a very good team," Zidane said in the post-match press conference, in possibly one of the understatements of the season. "We deserved to win the league and the Champions League - and that's not easy."
Zizou has made Real Madrid relentless
Real Madrid didn't score the most goals per game in the Champions League this season - that was Borussia Dortmund. Nor did they concede the least goals per game - surprisingly, that was FC Copenhagen. They didn't even win their group, finishing second behind Dortmund.
But always, they found a way to progress. Much of that credit has to go to Zidane, under whom Real Madrid have kept their hunger and relentless determination, even after lifting the Champions League last season.
It's something they've not always demonstrated - the Galacticos were unbelievably talented, but had periods when they had too many off days. Defensively, they were too vulnerable to consistently win La Liga.
Now Real Madrid are not only defending a little better than they used to, they're defending European Cups too. That's not to suggest they're perfect at the back - Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Villarreal all conceded less in La Liga this season, while Juventus caused them problems in the first half in Cardiff - but they don't wilt in the same way as they have on some occasions in the past.
They won more matches than anyone else in La Liga this season. In the Champions League when they faced testing moments - in this final, in both legs of their last 16 tie against Napoli, in both legs of their quarter final against Bayern Munich, and in the second leg of the semi final against Atletico Madrid - they dug deep, responded and found the crucial goals that helped them on their way.
Times crowned league and European champs in same season
- 5: Barcelona
- 3: Ajax, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid
- 2: Inter, Liverpool, Manchester United
- 1: Benfica, Celtic, Hamburg, Milan, Porto, PSV, Red Star Belgrade, Steaua Bucharest
Against Juve, Zidane himself made the difference with a subtle tactical change - switching Luka Modric to the right at half time. That succeeded in thwarting raiding left back Alex Sandro, as well as allowing Modric to cause havoc on that flank, culminating in his cross for Cristiano Ronaldo's second goal.
"In the second half Real Madrid pushed the accelerator and we remained static," admitted Juventus boss Max Allegri after defeat. "They played really well in defence. It wasn't easy for our forwards to get through."
Some might suggest it's pretty easy to manage a Real Madrid team including Ronaldo and a host of other superstars, but others have proven that's not always the case. Ask Rafa Benitez or Jose Mourinho, for instance. Yet Zidane has managed them perfectly - not bad considering his coaching abilities were written off by some during a sometimes difficult time in charge of Real Madrid's Castilla team.
The Frenchman brushed off the compliments that came his way after this victory in Cardiff. "I don't want to say that I'm very good," he said. "Before I was scandalously bad as a coach, now I'm supposed to be the best. I don't know."
He may not want to say it himself, but winning the Champions League in each of his first two seasons as Real Madrid coach probably does make him very good. It's time to give Zizou real respect for his managerial feats.
Ronaldo reached top form when it mattered
At the same time, it's unlikely that Zidane or in fact any manager would have been able to achieve so much at Real Madrid this season without Ronaldo. Undoubtedly, the team's relentless mentality is in large part driven by the former Manchester United man.
True, he didn't score quite as many goals this season - a measly 42 in 46 games, which brought his run of scoring 50 goals in six successive seasons to an end, but would still rank as a pretty unbelievable season for anyone else apart from Lionel Messi.
Incredibly his performances received some criticism from sections of the Real Madrid support earlier in the campaign, amid suggestions that at 32 years of age he was starting to slow down.
"I think people don't have words to criticise, because the numbers don't lie," Ronaldo said in the press conference after victory, as he clinched his fourth Champions League trophy - a joint record for the revamped competition, together with Clarence Seedorf, Gerard Pique, Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta. "The most important thing is that again I did an amazing season - me and my team-mates won the double. My age is just a number. I feel like a young boy."
Ronaldo's goal tally this season was affected by missing nine league games - many of them when Zidane took the brave decision to rest him. It worked: Los Blancos won the league anyway, and Ronaldo was fresh for the crunch matches at the end of the season.
The Portuguese scored 10 goals in five games from the quarter finals onwards - five in two matches against Bayern Munich, a hat-trick against Atletico Madrid, then two more in the final. He delivered when it really mattered. In Cardiff, he was clinical. For all his talents, his sheer finishing ability has become his very best - something that was much lower on his list of strengths early in his career.
With a complete refusal to accept anything but the highest of standards, Ronaldo has driven Real Madrid on time and again, carrying the hopes of a behemoth of a football club on his shoulders. With his help, Los Blancos have ascended to their greatest heights since the 1950s.