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Real Madrid, Champions League king once again, has conquered the unconquerable

Real Madrid, Champions League king once again, has conquered the unconquerable

Real Madrid’s head coach Carlo Ancelotti celebrates with the players after winning the Champions League final match over Borussia Dortmund at Wembley stadium in London on Saturday. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Soccer is a silly, fluky, rampantly random sport, a game of beauty but, more often than not, failure. It is a game of 10 million actions but just a few defining moments. It’s a contest between two sets of two dozen feet trying to command a bouncy ball, which is why it’s so often cruel, especially in knockout competitions. It is, in a word, unpredictable — until a Champions League final rolls around, and Real Madrid enters the arena.

Then it is simple.

Then it’s a game of 10 million actions but only one possible outcome.

Opponents, like Borussia Dortmund, push and press and spar and stretch … and Real Madrid wins.

Dortmund dove head-first into that crushing inevitability on Saturday at Wembley stadium in London. Throughout a stunning first half, yellow waves came rolling, and crashing into the Real Madrid penalty area. And if this were any normal game — a mid-season league match or even a standard cup tie — they would’ve felt threatening. The king’s throne would have wobbled. Perhaps, after the umpteenth Dortmund attack, it would have fallen.

But instead, Niclas Füllkrug hit the inside of the post.

Karim Adeyemi scampered a bit too far wide.

Six-on-threes and one-on-ones went awry.

And naturally, inevitably, 5-foot-8 Dani Carvajal rose above the world, propelled by his white shirt’s superpower, to head Real Madrid toward yet another European title.

They eventually topped Dortmund 2-0 in Saturday’s Champions League final after Vinicius Junior doubled the lead in the 83rd minute with a beautiful finish from inside the box. They lifted La Orejona, the cup with the big ears, for a record-extending 15th time. (Nobody else has more than seven.)

It was their sixth title in 11 seasons, which, frankly, is quite absurd. Since 2013, they have entered this 32-team gauntlet of the world’s top clubs 11 times … and won it more often than not.

The odds of any team winning the modern Champions League six-plus times in 11 seasons are miniscule. Even one with a free pass through the group stage and a 70% win probability in each knockout round, per some rough back-of-envelope math, would hold a 0.1% chance. Even the very best teams routinely stumble.

And Real Madrid, remarkably, has rarely entered as the very best team. In those 11 seasons, it only topped Spain’s La Liga on four occasions. It lagged behind Barcelona for much of last decade, and then behind the English Premier League’s rising tide.

Manchester City, meanwhile, became the perennial favorite. City is, currently, even according to Real Madrid striker Rodrygo, “better” than Madrid and “the best team in the world.” Under Pep Guardiola, they’ve won six of the last seven Premier League titles, including four in a row, both unprecedented runs in the multi-century history of English football.

And in the Champions League?

Well, they lost to Monaco in the Round of 16, then Liverpool and then Tottenham in the quarters. They fell to Lyon in 2020. The following season, they made the final, but lost to Chelsea. They have stood atop Europe just once — last season.

City, in other words — and like any team, in any knockout competition, from World Cup to Europa Conference League — has succumbed to soccer’s unpredictability; and to the only club seemingly impervious to that unpredictability, Real Madrid.

The “best team in the world” fell victim to late Madrid goals in 2022. In 2024, in an April quarterfinal, it dominated Madrid in every single statistical category, but lost on penalties.

It succumbed also to the apparent inevitability of the now-15-time European champions, who frequently struggle and sputter but simply don’t lose.

They began their run in 2014 with a 93rd-minute equalizer and then an extra-time rampage. They continued in 2016 with a shootout win, and in 2018 with some luck plus a Gareth Bale worldie. In 2022, they won with one shot on goal to Liverpool’s nine, and three total shots to Liverpool’s 23. They have not lost a Champions League final in their last nine tries.

Real Madrid’s Vinicius Junior celebrates winning the Champions League title over Borussia Dortmund on Saturday in London. Real Madrid won 2-0. (AP Photo/Ian Walton)

In 2024, they surely should’ve lost in the quarterfinals, but outlasted City. They appeared to have lost to Bayern Munich in the semis, until Joselu arrived. On Saturday, they weathered a first-half storm, which featured 1.7 expected Dortmund goals (xG) to only 0.1 for Madrid.

But was there ever any doubt about the outcome?

Advanced metrics don’t account for aura, a trait that’s difficult to define but very clearly relevant here.

“We always seem to find a way to get back into a game and win it,” Bale, now retired, told The Guardian this week. “It is that aura; other teams now are arguably playing [against] the badge and not necessarily [against] the team. It has momentum behind it, Real Madrid and the European Cup. Teams are scared to play Real Madrid and that is such a big thing.”

Was Dortmund scared? Was it unlucky? Was it inferior, ever so slightly, in the final third?

It was probably some combination of those things, and others.

But there is no common thread, no coherent explanation for six Champions League titles in 11 years.

“It’s something unbelievable,” Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti, the ever-serene architect, said postgame.

It should not be possible in such a preeminent and capricious competition, but here we are. Real Madrid, it seems, has conquered the unconquerable.

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