The mood on Real Madrid’s plane home Saturday night must have been quite strange, as the team’s historic third consecutive Champions League success was immediately overshadowed by its two most high profile individual stars talking about leaving this summer.
The celebrations had only just begun following Zinedine Zidane’s side’s patchy but ultimately deserved 3-1 victory over an unfortunate Liverpool team, when Cristiano Ronaldo suggested he was fed up waiting for a payrise from club president Florentino Perez.
“You will have my answer over my future in the coming days,” said Ronaldo on Beinsports Espana, before switching to the past tense: “It has been very nice being at Real Madrid.”
Spanish newspaper Marca reported that Real’s players, especially captain Sergio Ramos, admonished the Portuguese for his sensational comments on the pitch of the NSC Olympic Stadium while his team mates celebrated.
“I spoke when I shouldn’t have done but something is going to happen. It wasn’t the right time, but I was honest,” Ronaldo told reporters before boarding the Real bus.
“In a week I’ll say something because the fans have always supported me and are in my heart. I don’t speak much, but when I speak, I speak,” he added. “Obviously I have something to say, but it wasn’t the right time, although I don’t regret it, because I was honest. I’ve kept putting up with this but then I couldn’t control myself.”
Elsewhere on the pitch at Kiev’s Olympic Stadium, matchwinner Gareth Bale was telling BT Sport he wanted to leave too.
“I need to be playing week in, week out, and that has not happened this season,” Bale said. “I have to sit down with my agent in the summer and discuss it.”
The feeling was that issues simmering in the background all season had boiled over, and once the team’s collective goal had been achieved, its individual egos were immediately raging again.
What Madrid have done on the pitch through recent years has really been extraordinary. Until 12 months ago no club had ever managed to retain the Champions League in its modern format. But Zidane’s side have now won three in a row - going into the record books alongside Franz Beckenbauer’s Bayern Munich, Johan Cruyff’s Ajax, and Alfredo Di Stefano’s own Bernabeu side of the 1950s.
These are the greatest teams in the competition’s history, who dominated their eras with a clearly identifiable philosophy on the game. But this Madrid are much more difficult to define - a squad undeniably packed with galáctico talent, but also capable of pulling together on a sustained basis.
Nine Madrid players have started each of the last three Champions League finals - Keylor Navas, Marcelo, Sergio Ramos, Dani Carvajal, Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Karim Benzema and Ronaldo. Bale and Raphael Varane also now have four winners medals [adding in 2014 too].
Whether through luck or design, Perez has been unable to add any new expensive stars over recent summers, which has allowed a real team to blend together under Zidane’s understated control.
“We must enjoy this moment, what these players are doing, making history,” the Frenchman said. “This is what this team has, talent and hard work.
“Saturday’s game showed though, once again, how Zidane’s side can roll with the punches and then deliver a knock-out blow. The former galáctico himself admits he is no tactical genius, saying his main objective is ensuring Madrid’s talented stars work as hard as their opponents. Because then their individual quality will take care of the rest. It sounds almost too simple to be really true, but the evidence is there to back up his argument.
At various times over the last five seasons, different Madrid players have come through at big moments.
And not just those who speak loudest or sell the most jerseys. When Liverpool were threatening to overrun Madrid on Saturday, somebody needed to get a hold of the ball and turn the game in his team’s direction. Step forward Germany midfielder Toni Kroos, who despite incessant pressure from rival players, completed 50 of his 51 passes in the first half.
Bale’s bicycle kick was one of the best goals in Champions League final history. But it was a moment of genius preceded by a 20 pass team move, taking in eight of Madrid’s 10 outfield players, with Croatia playmaker Luka Modric involved on four different occasions.
Modric’s control of the situation pushed Liverpool back, got his team into position to strike. If the move was then finished by an attacker of true world class, well Madrid have plenty of them too.
This suggests that, even if Ronaldo and /or Bale do move on now, the team can keep winning.
A new world record deal for long-time Perez target Neymar is already reportedly in place. Emerging Spanish star Marco Asensio, a late substitute on Saturday, is ready to step up now.
Ronaldo and Bale’s post-game comments on Saturday night were unfortunate, but not the real story.
Zidane’s Madrid are about much more than individual stars. No matter what happens this summer they should start the 2018/19 Champions League as favourites for four in a row.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved