Wrestling great Ric Flair once said “to be the man, you gotta beat the man” – and, throughout his legendary forty-year career, the Nature Boy proved night-in and night-out that he was the man.
A gloss over the statistics and highlights confirm his legendary status, but for much of his career he was a reviled villain. Always sneaking a win when all looked lost, the ring general ruled the roost.
The fans kept coming back for more, loving Flair’s personality, but also hoping it would finally be the night where Flair was decisively beaten, but every time he would trump… just.
This is the beauty of a great heel champion, a man who can be recognised as the bad guy, but still praised for his entertainment value and sell tickets anywhere he goes. Flair mastered the art.
They all looked beatable but, crucially, they were never beaten. At least, they weren’t beaten as much as they should have been.
This brings us nicely to Tuesday night and Real Madrid’s progression to another Champions League Final. Zinedine Zidane’s side were outplayed across two legs by Bayern Munich, but still came out on top.
Bayern had 39 shots to Real’s 16. 97 touches in Madrid’s box to 37 in Bayern’s. 15 shots on target for Bayern to seven for Real. 60% possession for Bayern.
In the end, the only statistic that mattered was the aggregate scoreline – Real Madrid 4 – 3 Bayern Munich.
The regularity with which Real can create a goal out of nothing is startling. After Joshua Kimmich’s opener, no player panicked. There was no need to, things would turn, and Real’s unwavering self-belief took hold – a confidence bred by a team of leaders.
Constant communication can be seen throughout the side. The heads stayed down, they kept plugging away, improvising in the face of the thoroughly-planned Bavarians.
Bayern were dominating, efficiently carving through the non-existent Real midfield, with Toni Kroos and Mateo Kovacic absent from any and all defensive duties. At half-time, it only made sense to question how they hadn’t scored more.
Yet Madrid were already level by then, carving out a fabulous goal from Karim Benzema out of virtually nothing.
If the first half was conviction proven, the opening moments of the second half were sheer stupid luck. No one other than Sven Ulreich can know what was going through his mind when coming out to collect Tolisso’s backpass, and a lot of sympathy has to be felt after the fantastic season he’s had.
But Real do not have time for such trifling, and Benzema graciously accepted the gift that all but killed off Bayern’s chances.
From there, Madrid still didn’t look the better side, but individual performances came to the fore.
Yet, it all looked disorganised, an elite group of individuals in total disharmony, last-ditch defending everything and making decisions totally independent of any semblance of team structure.
Pulling every which way at once, it was impossible to decipher what Real’s gameplan actually was, other than throw bodies in the way of everything and get off a lot of crosses in attack.
And yet, there was no self-glorification, only communication. Always talking, always talking.
Zinedine Zidane has at his disposal a special side of European sprinters, whose experience on the big occasion is unmatched anywhere, especially from the man in charge. Is there any other side that would stay so calm in the face of impending doom?
No memories of the Juventus game in the previous round came back. No sense of self-doubt. The move preceding the first goal saw Real string together 28 passes, most of which were exchanged between Kroos and the back line, perfectly harmless around the centre circle.
One ball from Kroos, and it changed in an instant.
No plan? No bother. No side can play off the cuff like Real can.
Memories come back of the AC Milan side that were crowned champions in 2007. The Rossoneri only managed a fourth-placed finish in Serie A after a horrible start to the season, and even had to take a mid-season break to Malta to undergo serious self-reflection.
Even in the Champions League, it wasn’t all plain sailing. Only topping their group by a point ahead of Lille after being held to a draw in France and beaten in the San Siro by Les Dogues, as well as losing to AEK Athens along the way, they then scraped past Celtic 1-0 after extra time in the round of 16 – a game made famous by Antonio Gilardino’s posthumous yet hilarious dive.
Bayern were done away with in the quarter-finals in eerily-similar fashion to their 2018 vintage, before a Kaka masterclass knocked out Manchester United and two inspired strikes from Filippo Inzaghi sunk Liverpool in revenge for Athens two years prior.
But think of the names in that Milan side – Maldini, Nesta, Cafu, Gattuso, Ambrosini, Costacurta, Dida, Pirlo, Seedorf, Inzaghi, Ancelotti in the dugout.
Three finals in the space of five years they managed. All experienced. All battle-hardened. All leaders.
Real’s domestic failings have been documented at length but their European exploits continue to inspire confusion amongst even the most ignorant of football fans. They are proving the power of leaders is not, and never will be, obsolete.
Navas, Modric, Marcelo, Ramos, Varane, Carvajal, Kroos, Bale, Benzema, Ronaldo. Three finals in a row. Any one of these men would make a worthy captain for any Champions League-winning side, yet they’re all playing together, confounding all logic and expectations.
Whether it is Liverpool or Roma who advance to meet them in Kiev on May 26th, Jurgen Klopp or Eusebio Di Francesco will study and prepare meticulously.
We know that Real’s relentless, yet disorganised, pressing suits Liverpool’s attacking game perfectly. We also know that on his day, Edin Dzeko can dominate any centre-back.
But what we know doesn’t matter, only one fact remains true above all others.
To be the man, you gotta beat the man – and brother, Real Madrid are the men.
Alex Dunne, Pundit Arena.