Real Madrid’s golden era sustained by myth, epic and cold intelligence | Champions League

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ors the world turned a shade of white close to midnight in Paris, dissolving into a familiar frieze – the same shapes and songs, the Champions League trophy waved about with the same sense of dieu et mon droit – there was also a feeling of something revealing itself, of a question being answered.

In the build-up to Real Madrid’s narrow but decisive victory at Stade de France on Saturday night there had been a lot of talk in England about claims on greatness and ultimacy, born out of Liverpool’s own thrillingly sustained attempt to chase the sun right to the seasons’s end.

For Jürgen Klopp’s team there is only glory in falling just short of the peak, a point, a goal, a game from the perfect season. But one mystery was at least solved in Paris. Greatness you say? A team for the ages? I can tell you, messieurs et mesdames, the killers are in this room right now.

This is the big thing about ultimacy. It does not happen very often. Or rather, it keeps on happening the same way. Other empires will rise, other seats of power, tactics, systems and economic might. But this is still by any reasonable measure the age of the Meringues. Albeit an age that is still hard to explain or define without falling back on things like magic and bloodline, leftover brilliance.

What is the model here? What does the age of Madrid mean? How do we replicate it? The obvious response is that you can not, not without actually being Real Madrid, and there is space for only one of those. This is the great thing about believing your own divine right of kings myth. Just telling that story, repeating over and over that Madrid know how to win, is a source of power in itself.

There is an epic, almost bardic quality to these five Champions League triumphs in eight years. Epics repeat: the same scenes, the same story details, the same outcome, embedding itself as part of football’s daily script, its dream life. The more we tell this story of victory the more it becomes true, to the extent even writing the words “an almost bardic quality” or “the more we tell this story” becomes another small note in this self-fuelling epic, with its bardic qualities, with its repetitions, with its epic heroes, its bardic qualities, its white light, the same shapes and songs.

Real Madrid supporters greet their returning heroes. Photograph: Andrea Comas / AP

This process was there in the final itself, where we were told so many times that Vinícius Júnior would find space behind Trent Alexander-Arnold that it became fact ahead of time. Even as Vinícius set off on a skittering run with 30 minutes gone, a full second before the pass was launched in his direction (and intercepted), the entire Madrid end could be heard roaring and pointing at an event that had yet to happen, gripped with premonitions. Bardic repetitions? It’s like having a 12th man on the pitch.

But then, of course, at some point sense must also intrude. In reality, it’s not actually magic. Strip back the myth-making and the Real Supremacy is a more prosaic kind of brilliance. There is no tactical blueprint, no “system”, no Madrid Way. Madrid win because this is just such a high ‑ grade, hyper ‑ intelligent group of footballers.

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In this sense the comeback stuff has been misleading. What Madrid really want is control. That was what they found in Paris. By the end Liverpool had taken 24 shots at goal, only four of them on target; Madrid had four shots in total. Liverpool had more possession and three times as many corners.

But Madrid were always more precise. The front three lost the ball eight times between them all game. Mo Salah lost the ball eight times all on his own. In midfield, Madrid seemed to be playing in more vivid colors. Toni Kroos did not run or hustle or press much, but completed 93% of his 83 passes. Kroos and Luka Modric lost control of the ball in possession once all game between them. This is simply a supreme group of players, governed by the ice-cold intelligence of that all ‑ time midfield, plus of course the deceptively precise light touch style of Carlo Ancelotti.

Carlo Ancelotti is now the only manager to have won the Champions League four times. Photograph: Adam Davy / PA

Modric, incidentally, must light up with fond fuzzy memories each time he sees Jordan Henderson’s name on the team sheet. Henderson’s record against Modric reads played five, drawn one, lost four, including two Champions League finals and a World Cup semi. We really must do this more often old boy. It isn’t magic or inner belief that makes Kroos, Modric and Casemiro – the perfect blend of craft, hustle, and vision – better than Henderson, Fabinho and an unfit Thiago. But eight years down the line, it is still epic.

Plus, of course, there is something else, perhaps the real key through the last eight years of glory. Real Madrid’s ownership model has turned out to be a genuine gold-plated ace. For Madrid part of the beauty of this Champions League win is the fact the teams they have beaten have been project clubs, new money, upstart powers: two nation-state vehicles and another club whose owner was being sanctioned for his connection to a European land war.

Madrid have a very clear sense of themselves in this new world order and have been openly hostile, and to some extent inspired too, by the threat of losing their muscle. Squint a little and that run of victories – PSG, Chelsea and Manchester City – brings to mind the sequence at the end of the Godfather where Michael Corleone takes down the new faces in town, the incomers on the family turf, with a series of dramatic public hit jobs. Kiss the ring. The cartel is on top once again.

The real advantage here is that in a time of flux and interference the socio ownership model is a kind of insulation. It may be a madhouse of egos and politics, of dubious dealings, and bottomless loan facilities. Madrid may be a basket case of economic entitlement, menaced only by the prospect of running out of other people’s money. But there is also a degree of focus, of diffuse interests. This will always be, at bottom and in whatever form, a footballing obsession.

Good choices have been made over those years. Even failing to buy Kylian Mbappé might turn out to be a positive. He is at least parked somewhere safe. And Madrid’s recent success has been based on buying smart, on going pre-Galáctico, buying the next Neymar before he becomes Neymar; buying Vinícius who, as luck would have it, is a clean-living winning machine.

On one level this great team is now ageing, that great midfield, the real source of power, about to dissolve. And yet while players keep on leaving, the regiment never dies. That regal white thread is still intact. And this, it turns out, is what ultimacy looks like.

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