Real Madrid’s trophy machine bids to set the seal on modern-day mastery

Paul Wilson on 23 May 2018

Saturday’s Champions League final in Kiev promises to be that rare event, a meeting of outstanding teams that lives up to its billing, though the television trailer advertising that the contestants have 17 European Cups between them is economical with the truth.

The figure is correct; it is just that Liverpool’s total of five is dwarfed by the Spanish club’s dozen. Not many teams can make Liverpool feel inferior in Europe but Real Madrid can. The current holders of the trophy have a habit of making everyone feel inferior. No one else is in double figures. No one else has won back-to-back titles in either the original European Cup knockout format or the modern Champions League era.

It is true that Real’s near-impossible numbers are largely thanks to the dream start they had in European competition, when the side of Alfredo Di Stefano and (later) Ferenc Puskas won the first five editions of the European Cup before the rest of the continent got its act together, though the idea that the club’s potency is based on ancient history does not bear scrutiny.

The cold fact Liverpool supporters must face is that their opponents are preparing for their fourth final in five years. Not only that, the previous three have all been won. Liverpool are fond of the boast that they have won the European title five times, and in terms of English football they have every right to be. Their successes of 1977, 1978, 1981, 1984 and 2005 put them easily at the top of the list of achievers from this country.

Their nearest challengers are Manchester United with three, Nottingham Forest (still) with two and Chelsea finally managed it in 2012. Apart from Real Madrid only Milan have won more (seven), and with five wins spread over three decades Liverpool find themselves level with Bayern Munich and Barcelona.

Yet should Real Madrid win in Kiev it would confirm a dominance once thought unattainable in the modern version of the contest. Four wins in five seasons would be arguably more attention-grabbing.

Until last season no team had been able to win back-to-back Champions League titles. In 24 years of intense competition the rejigged format had produced a different winner every time. Not even Barcelona at their most brilliant managed to win the European Cup then do it again the following season.

The old patterns of success, which had seen distinct periods of dominance by outstanding sides such as Ajax (three consecutive wins between 1971 and 1973), Bayern Munich (three in a row between 1974 and 1976), or Internazionale, Forest and Milan winning it back to back in the mid-60s, late 70s and late 80s respectively, were thought to have been consigned to history. Uefa must have been quite pleased with itself for devising a competition so difficult to crack but now the possibility is being contemplated of a team who have already won two in a row making it three.

Should that happen, and even if it does not happen, Real Madrid deserve enormous credit for consistency.

The talk on Merseyside is that this might be Liverpool’s year, with Jürgen Klopp in charge and Mo Salah in such irresistible form, and so it might.
The talk on Merseyside is that this might be Liverpool’s year, with Jürgen Klopp in charge and Mo Salah in such irresistible form, and so it might. Photograph: Dave Shopland/BPI/REX/Shutterstock

The talk on Merseyside is that this might be Liverpool’s year. Yet there is a recognition within that expression that under the modern format even a club with a rich European pedigree might manage a tilt at the ultimate title only once in a while – not every year certainly and not for a club like Liverpool or, from the look of things, Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Barcelona or Bayern Munich either.

All these are now relative strangers to European Cup finals whereas Real Madrid are beginning to feel at home. There might have been a 12-year gap between the Zinedine Zidane volley in Glasgow that earned a ninth European title in 2002 and the victory over Atlético Madrid in Lisbon that took Carlo Ancelotti’s side into double figures, but victories over Atlético and Juventus in the last couple of finals have firmly re-established Real Madrid’s pre-eminence.

Liverpool’s task in Kiev is to find a way of prospering against the savviest team around. History counts for only so much but the record books show that Liverpool have been in two European Cup finals since the competition was reorganised in 1993. They won one, famously, in 2005, and lost the next to Milan in Athens two years later. Real Madrid have appeared in six finals over the same period and won the lot.

The acceleration over the past few years means Real Madrid actually have a higher success rate – six wins in 25 attempts – under the new format than the old one, where despite their blistering start they added only the 1966 title to their initial five to record six wins over 37 seasons.

So in one sense Cristiano Ronaldo and his pals are very much the Real deal, a trophy machine even more efficient than the original, something that will be glaringly obvious should they prevail on Saturday. Of the 15 in which they have competed, they have lost only three. Adam and the Ants were at No 1 with Stand and Deliver the last time Real Madrid lost a European Cup final, Bob Champion had just won the Grand National on Aldaniti and England was about to come to a halt for a royal wedding. It was 37 years ago in other words but their opponents in 1981 were Liverpool.

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