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Soccer

Real Madrid Is Bulletproof

Real Madrid's Spanish defender Nacho Fernandez (C) and Real Madrid's players lift the trophy to celebrate their victory at the end of the UEFA Champions League final football match between Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid at Wembley Stadium in London, United Kingdom on June 01, 2024.
Ibrahim Ezzat/Anadolu via Getty Images

You have to score goals to win soccer matches. The more chances a team creates, the more likely they are to score. Such wisdom is so obvious as to not even be worth spelling out, except for the fact that Real Madrid continues to prove that the law of averages simply does not apply to them.

In Saturday's Champions League final, Borussia Dortmund became the latest in a long line of teams to be broken by Madrid's imperviousness. As big of an underdog as has existed in a modern final, the fifth-place Bundesliga darlings, who had taken out Atlético Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain on the way to Wembley Stadium, made a frenzied effort to attack Madrid's goal as many times as possible. The German squad ceded possession to their opponents, only to spring all-out counter-attacks designed to create as many chances as possible.

A team might make plans, but Real Madrid laughs in the face of danger. Like the best horror movie monsters, Madrid must be killed and burned and buried, otherwise what happened to Dortmund—just like what happened to Atlético Madrid twice, Juventus, and Liverpool twice as well—will happen with a consistency unmatched in soccer. Real Madrid survived, perhaps with some divine intervention, just long enough to foil Dortmund's best-laid plan and win its 15th title, sixth in 11 years, by 2-0 score that was as unlikely as it was inevitable.

The thing is, Dortmund's strategy should have worked. Maybe against any other team in the world, it would have. Dortmund was ruthless with its counter-attacks in the first half, releasing Karim Adeyemi against an almost completely washed-up Dani Carvajal on the right side of Madrid's defense. The 22-year-old German was Dortmund's best attacking option early on, and even if all of his runs didn't end in shots on goal, it set the tone: Dortmund wasn't going to be scared by Madrid's aura. By giving Madrid most of the ball early, Dortmund was able to pounce on any mishits and strike hard; the German side outshot its opponents eight to two in the first half, and these were not empty shots. They were dangerous attacks, the kind that eventually punish a defending side for letting them happen to so often. And yet, at no point in the first half did I think Dortmund would actually win this game, even if those first 45 minutes were as good as anyone has played against Real Madrid in its six recent finals.

I've seen this film before, and I didn't like the ending. Liverpool two years ago dominated Madrid, but thanks to some poor finishing and some immense Thibaut Courtois saves, the Reds were held scoreless for 90 grueling minutes, while a 59th-minute Vinicius Junior goal was enough for Madrid to win the trophy on that day in Paris. Recently departed Liverpool manager (and former Dortmund boss) Jürgen Klopp was in attendance on this Saturday, and he must have gotten trauma flashbacks during Dortmund's first-half barrage.

If there's one chance that best represented how the game went as a whole, it was Adeyemi's 21st-minute breakaway. The German spotted Carvajal out of position and embarked on a picture-perfect run behind him, just as Dortmund center back Mats Hummels hit maybe the best pass of his life into the open space. Adeyemi was through on goal with just Courtois's massive frame in the way of an invigorating opener. Adeyemi should have probably shot against the charging Courtois, but he chose to dribble around instead. His touch betrayed him, though, and was wide enough that Carvajal was able to turn on whatever afterburners he has at the age 32 to get just enough of the ball to knock it out for a corner.

It's facile to say this, but that is the exact type of chance that teams must convert, in any game, but especially against Real Madrid in a Champions League final. Ditto Niclas Füllkrug's 23rd-minute shot, which might have been offside (the flag didn't go up but it was close enough that VAR would have intervened), but pinged off the inside of the post and out of the goal.

While Courtois—freshly returned to the Champions League lineup after missing most of the year with an ACL injury, and as immense in performance as he is in size—kept saving Madrid (he also made a tough save to his right on a Marcel Sabitzer rocket in the 41st minute), this wasn't exactly a replay of the one-sided 2022 final. Madrid grew into the game in the second half, as Dortmund tired out from so much defending and countering. Madrid is at its best when it can do countering of its own, and by letting Dortmund have more of the possession—the numbers shifted from 64 percent in favor of Madrid in the first half to roughly 50-50 in the second—Madrid was able to unleash its terrifying hydra of attackers.

Jude Bellingham didn't have his best game to cap his majestic first season in Spain, but Vinicius was a constant menace down to the left, while Rodrygo kept finding open space on the right to pressure the Dortmund backline. Going the other way, Dortmund was robbed of its ability to strike fast against a backpedaling Madrid defense, and the Black and Yellows had no chances to rival the first half close calls.

Even with all that, though, it was the unlikeliest of players who would score the eventual game-winner. Carvajal has been a staple of Madrid's success in Europe, but he's also past his prime. He's also 5-foot-8, which makes him rising for a header off a 74th-minute corner and nodding the ball past everyone and into the net all the more euphoric (if you're a Madrid fan) and devastating (if you're anyone else).

That goal broke what was left of Dortmund's spirit. The final 15 minutes of the match were a coronation in slow motion. Dortmund simply ran out of juice, and when Vinicius scored to truly put this match to bed in the 83rd, it was a mercy killing.

That's thing about Madrid, though. There's no mercy here, only a mentality that no Champions League final is ever over until its players have lifted the trophy. There will be no mercy going forward, either. While Toni Kroos is retiring, and Luka Modrić is coming back for what is likely one final year as a bench mainstay and royal figurehead, Madrid won't be sitting on the joy and glory of its 15th title. As has been expected for years, Kylian Mbappé is headed to Madrid next season. That gives the team probably the three best attackers in the world, with the French World Cup winner joining Bellingham and Vinicius. (Rodrygo might be the odd man out, with reports that Manchester City wants his signature; there are worse ways to be forced out, I suppose.)

The midfield stars might be on the way out, but it's not like Madrid didn't prepare for this; along with Courtois, the best players for Madrid on Saturday were 25-year-old Federico Valverde and 21-year-old Eduardo Camavinga. This is a team that wins now, but perhaps more terrifyingly for the rest of Europe, it's a team set up to continue winning until the sun engulfs the Earth. With Carlo Ancelotti's cool hand at the wheel, there's not even the hope that Mbappé ruins the chemistry and magic that exists in the Spanish capital. Madrid won La Liga and the Champions League this season despite a handful of ACL injuries and the loss of Champions League legend Karim Benzema. Adding perhaps the best player in the world will require an adjustment period, but the obscenely rich will be getting richer.

Even if Mbappé does mess with the careful alchemy in Madrid, it still might not matter. This is a club that can get a league-clinching (in everything but name) goal from 34-year-old castoff Joselu, or a Champions League-winning header from a diminutive and over-the-hill Carvajal. Does it even need Mbappé? Probably not, but Madrid has ruled over the Champions League by constantly reinventing itself without losing whatever deal with the devil it made. As Dortmund found out on Saturday, it takes everything a team has to defeat Madrid as its own game, and any mistakes, no matter how small, will only become nightmares in the years to come. Madrid is undead. Madrid is forever. Madrid is the Champions League winner once again.

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