A dramatic and wonderful Champions League final finally had to come to and end, and it was Real Madrid celebrating a win on penalties over Atlético Madrid in the end. The San Siro bore witness to a delightfully well-played match, with everything you could ask for -- a scrappy goal, a gorgeous goal, fantastic play at both ends of the pitch, extra time and a huge penalty shootout capped off by Cristiano Ronaldo scoring the winner.
The tone was set early on with Real Madrid surging forward in attack, interchanging Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale freely while trying to knock a normally sturdy Atlético defense off balance. Diego Simeone's men seemed to struggle to adapt to what was being thrown at them, giving Real more chances at goal early on than you would normally have expected to see.
So it was little surprise when, just 15 minutes into the match, Atléti's defense cracked and a goal slipped in. Jan Oblak had been impressive in goal early on, but a strike at point-blank range from Sergio Ramos off a set piece proved to be something he couldn't handle, and Real Madrid were racing with an early and crucial 1-0 lead.
Atlético firmed things up after that, using their deficit in the scoreline to inspire themselves to a better defensive showing, but that improvement didn't translate up front. Fernando Torres struggled for space against Pepe, and Sergio Ramos did a good job of keeping Antoine Griezmann in check as well, limiting Atléti's ability to put together a significant threat. They got their shots off, but most of them were soft efforts or low-percentage shots that offered little real danger to Keylor Navas in Real's goal.
Griezmann did start to grow more into the game, dropping behind Torres a bit more to separate himself from Ramos more, and that allowed Atlético to start growing into their attack some. The rojiblancos started to control more of the ball in possession as well, deciding to slow Real Madrid's attack by starving them of the ball as much as possible since they had struggled to contain them otherwise. That strategy worked, and by the time the halftime whistle blew some of Real's players looked more frustrated despite their lead over Atlético.
That improvement helped get Atlético off to a flying start in the second half, after a tactical adjustment, bringing on the attack-minded Yannick Carrasco on for the more defensive -- and largely ineffective in the match -- Augusto Fernandez. That got them flowing forward and causing enough unease on Real Madrid's defense that Pepe threw in a desperation challenge on Fernando Torres in the penalty area just a few moments into the half that forced referee Mark Clattenburg to point to the penalty spot, giving Atlético the chance to equalize -- but Griezmann's try from the spot clanged off the bar to no avail.
Atlético could have let that hurt their confidence and drop their heads, but they kept pushing forward, finding the aggression they lacked in the first half. What they didn't find, though, was effectiveness, and they struggled against to break down Real's defense after they had a chance to settle back into things in the second half.
It was starting to look like things were doomed to failure for Atlético in this match, with Real's defense holding up brilliantly and their attack slowly finding more and more opportunities to find a second goal for themselves. That was the case right up until an almost miraculous block of a Gareth Bale shot during a terrifying sequence of Real attacking nearly found the back of the net, finally letting Atlético launch forward on the counter -- and Juanfran found Carrasco running for the far post, drilling a low cross to the Belgian that got emphatically fired home to level the scoreline and send Atlético fans all over the world into rapturous joy.
Both teams took the chains off after that and went all-out chasing the winner, but couldn't find it before the final whistle blew on regulation, meaning that for the second time in three years, Real and Atlético would need extra time to figure out who wins the Champions League.
Extra time ticked away with Real Madrid struggling with declining energy levels in the heat and humidity of the San Siro, while Atlético looked like they had a lot more left in them. Gareth Bale in particular was struggling, laboring to get around the pitch in open play and taking the opportunity at every stoppage of play to try to stretch out the cramps in his legs. He was far from alone in his fitness struggles late in the match, though, and it appeared that Atlético finally had the advantage they needed.
Real Madrid were able to keep their defensive shape intact, though, and kept Atlético Madrid at bay despite their lack of energy while barely maintaining their own attacking pressure, forcing the game to go to penalties.
Both teams made their first three tries from the spot, with Sergio Ramos adding a fourth for Real Madrid before Juanfran scuffed his shot for Atlético and clanged it off the post. Even if he hadn't hit the post, though, it looked like Navas had it covered, and when Ronaldo hammered his shot home, that was that for Atlético.
Real Madrid are the Champions League winners for the 11th time in their club's incredible history, this time winning it in what should be one of the most memorable finals in recent memory. The result is a sad one for Atlético Madrid fans, but their team played magnificently to get to this game and to force it to go to the bitter end the way they did. Fortune did not smile on them in the last full measure, though, and instead it is Zidane and Real Madrid who are celebrating with the Champions League trophy.
Real Madrid: Keylor Navas; Dani Carvajal (Danilo 52'), Pepe, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo; Toni Kroos (Isco 72'), Casemiro, Luka Modric; Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema (Lucas Vazquez 77'), Cristiano Ronaldo
Goals: Ramos (15')
Atlético Madrid: Jan Oblak; Juanfran, Stefan Savic, Diego Godín, Filipe Luís (Lucas Hernandes 109'); Gabi, Augusto Fernández (Yannick Carrasco 46'), Koke (Thomas Partey 116'), Saúl Ñíguez; Antoine Griezmann, Fernando Torres
Goals: Carrasco (79')
Three things we learned
Fitness levels almost won the day
Despite their struggles tactically through various points of the game, in the end they had one major advantage: their fitness and energy levels. Perhaps it was a benefit of Atlético's hard-running style, maybe it was the result of Diego Simeone's training regimen that he enforces on the team, but whatever it was, as time in regulation wore down and went into extra time, it was clear that Atlético had much more left in the tank than Real Madrid did.
Despite the heat and humidity in the San Siro, Atlético were able to hold onto that extra gear of energy and momentum a lot longer than Real were, who opened the match brilliantly but were clearly struggling late in regulation, and even more as extra time ticked away. They got steadily slower and sloppier as time went on, while Atlético stayed quick and crisp, even into the second extra time period.
In the end, though, Atlético started to break down as well, with Filipe Luís and Koke both leaving with apparent groin injuries in the second half of extra time. But most of the rest of their team stayed fresh enough to press on, and easily held off Real's last desperate tries to break the deadlock while getting forward themselves -- though they failed to break down rivals in the end. Still, that edge in fitness kept Atlético in the game far longer than many observers thought they would have been after they struggled early in the match.
Where was Atlético's aggression?
Simeone and Atlético have found the success they have by becoming the premier example of aggressive football. Pressing high, harassing, frustrating, aggravating, lightning-quick counters -- you name it, Atlético did it. But something weird happened in the first half -- they lost their aggression.
Sure, you generally see teams play things a little safer in cup finals. You don't want to risk making a mistake on the big stage that guts your chances to win, after all. But Atlético didn't just back off the aggression a little bit in the first half, they almost entirely abandoned it. They hardly looked like the team that left Bayern Munich flabbergasted, that pushed for the La Liga title almost all the way to the end of the season. They looked hamstrung and almost lifeless compared to that team.
You could argue that Atlético were saving energy for later in the match, but that's not really what it looked like. We've seen them keep up their edge and their aggressive nature while playing a bit slower to stay fresh before, and that didn't look like what we saw in the first half. This time, Atléti just looked blunted and listless.
Yes, that edge largely returned in the second half, following some tactical adjustments and what was certainly a blistering halftime "talk" from Simeone, and Atlético played better for it. But it was so perilously absent in the first half that one can't help but wonder what the final outcome of the match might have been if they had just been themselves from the first whistle.
Zinedine Zidane is pretty good at managing
When Real Madrid plucked Zidane from the touchline of their Castilla side to lead the first team after firing Rafa Benitez, many wondered if the fiery Frenchman was ready. Sure, his playing pedigree was unquestionable, but he just didn't have a lot of managerial experience yet of any kind, and none with a first-division team. How would he handle the egos and pressure and spotlight involved in managing a team like Real Madrid?
Turns out, pretty well.
Zidane fixed a glaring flaw in their tactical structure, eschewing the 4-2-3-1 favored by Benitez for a 4-3-3, bringing Casemiro into midfield to balance out Toni Kroos and Luka Modric. That freed up the team significantly, taking defensive pressure off Kroos and Modric and giving the defense a better shield, and even allowing the attack to play with more freedom instead of having to worry about covering the defense from up high and doing all the creative work themselves. That helped launch Real to this stage, on which Zidane amde a handful of subtle tactical adjustments and figured out how to take Atlético to the limit with relative ease, something even Pep Guardiola couldn't manage this season.