If it’s always open to debate whether the Champions League final actually decides the continent’s best team, there can be no doubt about the competition’s greatest club – or, more relevantly, what that very awareness does to Real Madrid.
That sense of destiny is what Liverpool came up against in Paris.
That is what Carlo Ancelotti articulated in the Stade de France auditorium after the game, as he typically sought to deflect praise despite a fourth Champions League medal on his chest.
“It’s easier to win the Champions League with Madrid than any other club,” the Italian said. “It’s the history, it’s everything that has happened to us, it’s the affinity . . .”
There were a few elements of that statement that were ironic, even if they were not delivered with Ancelotti’s characteristically arched eyebrow.
Madrid’s affinity with the Champions League may make any challenge easier, but no side has ever had it so difficult.
There was first of all the run. Madrid played the champions of France, who are also one of the two wealthiest clubs in the world, as well as the clubs that came first, second and third in England, the wealthiest league in the world.
There were then the circumstances. They were only ahead for 12 minutes of the last-16 meetings with Paris Saint-Germain, and 15 minutes of the semi-final with Manchester City, with all of their ties requiring late goals, extra-time or extra-level effort.
The only difference came in the final itself, but that control was surely informed and influenced by the chaos of what went before.
Ancelotti, more versed in anyone in these occasions, having been to five, knew they couldn’t leave so much to chance when there would be no second leg. It was do or die.
Madrid, as has so often been the case, did what was required.
In this match, it was a necessarily defensive performance. It was really Catenaccio, something all the more ironic given Ancelotti’s career, and how he reflected a new breed of Italian coaches from the mid-1990s.
That pointed to something else pertinent as regards the historic significance of these occasions. A defensive approach is usually an implicit acknowledgement that you are facing a superior team, since you are adapting around them; you are not going toe-to-toe, or playing the match on your terms.
The opening 25 minutes seemed to make this clear. Thibaut Courtois winning man of the match appeared to make this clear.
But being the inferior team as a whole does not mean you were undeserving on the night.
Once Madrid withstood that early pressure, they were largely comfortable. They didn’t necessarily have Liverpool where they wanted them, since Madrid would never wish to play so deep, but the game was playing out as they planned. They stood strong, Federico Valverde and Vinicius exploited one of the few gaps always there in this Liverpool structure, behind the full-backs.
From that, Madrid had no need to attack more. Liverpool struggled to attack more.
After Sadio Mane’s thunderous first-half effort, Courtois didn’t have a save to make until Mohamed Salah’s late run. Given that was from an individual burst, it was almost an acknowledgement that the team approach wasn’t working.
Liverpool had the possession and the territory but they didn’t have their usual intensity. This was something Jurgen Klopp himself acknowledged after the game.
“I would have liked to have a few more chances of this calibre in the last third, we could have done better passing and the crosses especially at the end of the game, crossing towards Courtois didn’t make too much sense. With our quality, we could have caused them more problems. But I saw a lot of passion and desire from my boys.”
It’s just that Madrid are one of the few sides that can match Liverpool for that emotional intensity and will – certainly in the Champions League.
Ancelotti nurtured that, in an adept piece of management, both psychological and tactical. It is now incredible to think that Florentino Perez wanted to sack him for a similar display in the last-16 first leg against Paris Saint-Germain.
The truth is it did make for another poor final, the fourth in a row. It was an even worse occasion, given the dismal treatment of supporters outside the stadium, but that is a topic that can only be done justice elsewhere.
It does point to Ancelotti’s quality as a manager, at least in cups. This is why Toni Kroos defended his tactical acumen in the build-up to the final.
Ancelotti may not be capable of imposing the kind of identity that modern coaches do and that win leagues over the long term but he can sufficiently adapt to beat them in knockout matches.
It is why he now stands on his own at the top of Europe’s greatest competition, with four Champions Leagues.
Every manager in history would have dreamed of this. Does it mean he is better than all of them?
It is not so simple, given the complications of comparing across events. There’s also the issue of what the Champions League has developed into, which is a competition you have a significant chance of winning if at one of the wealthiest clubs.
Ancelotti referenced this himself in another self-effacing reflection.
“After four years, I had difficulties fighting for titles, returning to Madrid was a great success.”
And yet he was only there because Perez had no other viable options, and no other big club wanted him.
It illustrates how so much of this is circumstantial, especially with cup competitions. What can be said for certain is that Ancelotti is more adept at navigating knockouts than anyone in history.
“I had doubts in many games,” he said. “But my players believed, believed, believed.”
That was down to him, and how he amplified the history of this club.
And yet there is another irony there, too.
One truism that has developed in the last few years, particularly as the Champions League has become more erratic in the knockout stages, is that the only way to determine the greatness of a side that has won it is whether they also won their domestic league.
Well, Ancelotti’s team have become only the fourth of Madrid’s 14 European champions to manage that. The great Alfredo Di Stefano era only saw it twice in five years. The Galacticos never did. Cristiano Ronaldo only saw it happen once, in 2017.
Yet, this Champions League feels all the more triumphant, and all the more defiant, because it is clearly a club in transition.
They are still adapting to a new world. The failure to sign Kylian Mbappe is the great illustration of this. The staggered nature of the squad emphasises it. Perez made a pompously pointed comment about the “state-backed clubs” like City and PSG after the game.
“Yes, they have the biggest budgets and that’s why they have the best players. In Madrid, we don’t distribute money. We distribute morals and values.”
This is the sort of talk victory allows. It also reflects something else that resonates about Champions League finals.
They are landmarks in history but also signposts for the future; end-points and encouragements.
Madrid can suddenly feel so much more optimistic about what comes next. They have shown Europe – and Mbappe – this is the place to be. That will have an effect.
It will make it a lot easier to improvise after failing to get the French star, since the club will again be more attractive. They have shown this is still where you win the game’s greatest prize.
Liverpool’s enthusiasm about it all is meanwhile somewhat dampened. The season has ended up rather underwhelming, the two trophies they did win not quite looking as gleaming against the silverware they aimed to win.
The squad suddenly doesn’t look as vibrant either. Sadio Mane has flagged his departure. Salah has only committed his future for another season leaving more uncertainty there. The captain, Jordan Henderson, is 32 in a fortnight and not playing as much.
Another forward will at least need to be signed.
But, again, these are the sort of perspectives that come in the aftermath of defeat – especially in a game as defining as this.
Their squad is still in a better place than Madrid’s, and most of Europe. They’re still one of the best sides in Europe, as Madrid’s very approach was an admission of.
It is not the season it could have been. It is not history. But there is still hope for the future. Klopp had a clear message for his fans after the game: book the final for next year.
The Liverpool manager, of course, is still optimistic; still enthusiastic.
While other clubs are constantly hopeful about what next, though, Madrid continue to celebrate what they have just done.