Saturday’s Champions League final penalty shoot-out victory brought almost instant glory for Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane, while Atletico Madrid and their boss Diego Simeone were dealt the cruellest of hammerblows.
When the teams met in 2014’s ‘derbi’ final, Madrid’s momentum on equalising late saw them ease to a 4-1 victory in extra-time. The script seemed reversed for long periods this year, with Atletico substitute Yannick Carrasco responding late to Madrid captain Sergio Ramos’ first-half opener.
But Simeone’s side could not push home their advantage and penalties were needed. Colchoneros right-back Juanfran Torres missed, leaving it to Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo to convert the decisive kick.
Less than six months into his first senior management job, Zidane became just the seventh person ever to win the European cup as both player and coach.
“There were some moments which were difficult,” the former Galactico player admitted afterwards. “We had to suffer a lot, but that is normal. I knew it would be 50/50, the equaliser did not change that. I did not think anything negative. You must always just think positively.”
Zidane said this positivity, along with convincing his players to work harder, were the chief elements he has brought to the team since replacing Rafa Benitez in January.
“What I’ve brought is my positive attitude,” he said. “I knew when I got the chance to coach this squad, that it was possible to achieve something big.”
Even more than their Lisbon final meeting two years ago, Saturday’s match closely mirrored last October’s 1-1 La Liga draw at the Estadio Vicente Calderon.
Madrid went ahead early then, but sat back as Simeone out-thought Benitez, and a replacement [then Luciano Vietto] scored to make it 1-1. That game even also had an Antoine Griezmann penalty miss with his team 0-1 behind.
Zidane’s use of substitutes on Saturday was also questionable - all three were used before Atletico equalised. So Gareth Bale and Ronaldo played the 120 minutes while clearly suffering from muscle problems.
Real Madrid went over an hour without one shot on target, as they sat back after going in front.
Benitez was pilloried for being too cautious and negative after the October draw and even traded public remarks with Ramos about who was to blame. He never recovered the dressing room, and was gone within three months.
On Saturday night, after a similar team performance, Zidane got the bumps from his players during the post-match celebrations.
After arriving mid-season Zidane received a relatively soft draw - beating Roma, Wolfsburg and Manchester City to reach the final.
Meanwhile, Atletico had a much tougher progress past multiple-winners Barcelona and Bayern Munich. In the last fortnight, Simeone obsessed over every last detail, superstitiously avoiding any similarities to Atletico’s final build-up two years ago. Zidane cultivated a much more relaxed atmosphere - just making sure the players knew he believed in them. Before Saturday, Madrid president Florentino Perez had reportedly been planning on again changing coaches this summer, but Zidane was talking afterwards like a man staying long-term.
“Real Madrid is the club of my life,” he said. “I’ve won the Champions League [with Madrid] as a player, as assistant and now head coach - what can I say. I’m very proud to be part of this great club.”
Under Simeone, Atletico have beaten their neighbours in the Copa del Rey final, Spanish Supercopa, and won back to back at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in La Liga. But in each of the last three years they have fallen to Madrid in the biggest tournament of all.
There was a feeling - rightly or wrongly - that the Argentine had tried to micromanage everything, only to again come up short.
Meanwhile Zidane strolled in, kept everyone relaxed, and it all clicked into place for him.
Simeone congratulated the victors at his post-game press conference, saying that he had no complaints even though replays showed the Ramos goal was offside.
“I believe in destiny and today was not meant to be for us,” he said.
“There’s no such thing as justice in football. Whoever wins deserves to win.”
The former Atletico midfielder appeared to accept that he had tried his best - and maybe could give no more. “To lose two finals is a failure,” he said, while hinting he would now step aside. “It’s a moment to think, to reflect, and spend time at home.” Simeone may have believed that he and his team got what they deserved at San Siro - but it was difficult not to feel sorry for him and Atletico on Saturday night.
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