How Bellingham is staying focused for Champions League final

Jude Bellingham is 20 years old. He’s just been named LaLiga’s player of the year after scoring 19 goals to fire Real Madrid to the league title in his debut season at arguably the world’s biggest club. On Saturday, he’ll play a Champions League final against Borussia Dortmund at Wembley Stadium, before flying off to star for England at this summer’s European Championships.

It’s a dizzying trajectory, ticking off a lifelong checklist of career aspirations in just a few months. Surely even Bellingham — whose quiet self-confidence and steely ambition come across in every performance on the field, and every public appearance off it — couldn’t have expected to achieve quite so much, so soon?

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“Yeah, I’ve got to be honest, probably, yeah,” he said, smiling, speaking to a small group of journalists at Madrid’s training ground on Monday, five days before the biggest game of his career to date. “I always thought I could reach this level. This was always the level I wanted to play at. I probably never realized it would happen so quickly.”

It’s Bellingham’s first Champions League final. His coach Carlo Ancelotti has been involved in nine — three as a player, six as a coach — over 40 years. Ancelotti knows the importance of savouring the build-up to a game like this. “It’s a week to enjoy,” Ancelotti said on Monday. “Until the day of the final, we’ll enjoy the moment… Then, the worry arrives. The fear, the cold sweat arrives on Saturday afternoon, that’s normal.”

Bellingham doesn’t need reminding. “I’m really excited,” he said. “It’s a game I’ve been dreaming of since I started playing football. I understand the opportunity, I understand not many people get to play in games like this, and I don’t want to waste a second. I want to take in the whole week. I want to take in the experience of the game, and try to enjoy it… It would be stupid now to get here and want to hide away from the occasion.”

If the prospect of winning club football’s biggest prize weren’t enough, Madrid’s opponents on Saturday are Dortmund, the club which took a chance on Bellingham in 2020, signing him from Birmingham City as a 17-year-old and helping him grow as a player before his move to Madrid last summer.

“It’s definitely special,” Bellingham said on Monday. “But the preparation has to be the same as for every game. I know what makes me feel good going into a game, I’ve had experience of playing with some amazing pros, and I’ve always stolen little things from them. It’s important to just be me going into the game, and try not to worry too much about the emotional side.”

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A year at Madrid has seen Bellingham go from outstanding teenage prospect to global superstar, helped by a club record-breaking start to the season which saw him rack up 13 goals in 13 games. Long before the LaLiga title, individual awards were already heading his way — the 2024 Kopa Trophy for best under-21 player, Tuttosport’s 2024 Golden Boy award, the Laureus World Breakthrough Award — with talk of being a contender for the 2024 Ballon d’Or.

It started with a tactical switch, Ancelotti boldly picking Bellingham in a more attacking role, to compensate for Madrid’s lack of a world-class centre-forward after the departure of Karim Benzema.

“It was from the first day,” Bellingham said on Monday. “He [Ancelotti] said I was going to be playing a little bit higher. It’s not something I’d done consistently before, but I was really excited by the prospect: being close to goal, being a bit more free in that top third. In the end it was a decent decision. He [Ancelotti] knows what he’s doing!”

Bellingham’s second half of the season has been more discreet. A shoulder injury — dislocated in November, protected with strapping since — and an ankle problem picked up in February have affected his form. Ancelotti adjusted Bellingham’s position in the team, dropping deeper and to the left, requiring more defensive off-the-ball work. Bellingham’s goalscoring rate was reduced to that of a more typical midfielder, with six goals in 12 LaLiga games in 2024.

In the Champions League, four goals in his first four group games — against Union Berlin, Braga and twice against Napoli — have been followed by six matches without scoring, including both legs against Manchester City and Bayern Munich. In those four quarter and semifinal games, Bellingham’s combined xG (expected goals) was 0.12 from just three shots, in 374 minutes played.

His most notable knockout stage contribution — a vital one — came with the team underperforming and under pressure in the home leg against RB Leipzig in the round-of-16, carrying the ball half the length of the pitch before splitting the Leipzig defence with an assist for Vinicius Junior. The move showcased Bellingham’s strengths in a deeper role, his speed in transition and eye for a pass.

Against City and Bayern he was more subdued, his individual displays reflective of the team’s struggle to consistently impose itself in those ties. In the 3-3 home draw with Manchester City on April 9, Bellingham had 48 touches, fewer than any City player except Erling Haaland. In the 2-2 draw at Bayern Munich on April 30, he was substituted, tiring, on 75 minutes, replaced by Luka Modric with the team 2-1 down.

Ancelotti has said Bellingham is “doing his job” — “the goals have dropped off a bit, but the performance hasn’t” he said in April — and the team has kept on winning.

They clinched LaLiga with four games to spare and in London, they can make it a league and Champions League double, Madrid’s second in three years. Pre-match, you’ll see Bellingham out on the Wembley pitch, walking alone, visualizing key moments in the game, a ritual he’s followed all season.

“It’s a belief that my family’s always given me,” Bellingham said on Monday. “Teammates I’ve had, staff members I’ve had from the [Birmingham] academy. I’ve always thought to dream as big as possible. It’s a feeling I’ve always had growing up. I’ve worked hard, but there’s a lot of luck involved as well. I don’t shy away from saying how fortunate I’ve been. Now I’m here, I want to enjoy every moment.”