Real Madrid ride their luck before cruising to another Champions League title

LONDON — You wonder what went through Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti’s head as the half-time whistle blew at Wembley on Saturday night. His team, the heavy favorites and finalists in six of the past 10 years (and winners each time), could well have been two or three goals down against Borussia Dortmund, the Bundesliga‘s perpetual underachievers.

It was up to him to fix it. We don’t know what he said, but you assume not very much. Maybe it was a bit like that scene in “Pulp Fiction,” where the guy unloads his gun at Samuel L. Jackson; Real Madrid had escaped unscathed. Fate had given them a second chance; they had to make it count, and when you’ve won as much as this group has, you don’t need to be reminded of this.

“In the first half, we came out alive [but] they were quite a lot better,” Dani Carvajal would say after the game. “We knew our moment would come. We knew how to suffer.”

We do know what Ancelotti did tactically: very little. There was no panic, and no ripping up the blueprint. Just the tweak of shifting Jude Bellingham into a more central position, rather than have him shuffle wide out of possession. It was as if he was telling his crew: “You guys can do better and the gods of football have given you the chance to prove it.”

That chance was largely down to Thibaut Courtois, the man with the Victor Wembanyama wingspan and the nerves of an F1 driver. The big Belgian goalkeeper made himself even bigger — like those blowfish who double or triple in size — to force Karim Adeyemi wide of goal when he was through one-on-one. And because, for all his blistering speed, Adeyemi sometimes has the delicate touch of an Amazon delivery guy, he ended up taking the ball far enough wide that Dani Carvajal was able to trundle across, cover the goal line and snuff out the danger.

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Champions League final, as it happened: Madrid 2, Dortmund 0

Courtois stood tall again when Niclas Füllkrug‘s angled finish snaked across his body and ended up on the post. And it was him again who collapsed quickly to snuff out another Adeyemi effort just before the half-hour mark.

Each chance had a theme: transition. When Madrid lost possession, the opposition took off upfield in numbers, exploiting Adeyemi’s wheels and Marcel Sabitzer‘s timing in the inside-right channel. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that Real Madrid would have the bulk of possession and spend more time in the opposition half. That part of the script was being followed. What was unexpected, however, was the Spanish champions’ difficulty in converting all that territory and possession into goals or even concrete chances. (At half-time, Dortmund led the xG battle 1.68 to 0.09.)

Credit a very well-marshalled Dortmund defence — not something you expect to hear — and a phenomenal work rate, with Adeyemi and Jadon Sancho doubling up in the wide areas, but also their ability to turn defense into attack in the blink of an eye. It left Madrid frustrated — as evidenced by Vinicius‘ late lunge on goalkeeper Gregor Kobel that earned him a yellow card in the first half — and unable to muster much more than a couple of longer-range strikes.

But then came Madrid’s mulligan, and this time, there wouldn’t be any bogeys. Other than a Fullkrug header, there were few signs of Dortmund’s attacking threat after the break, and Madrid gradually grew into the game, like a boxer who knows his opponent is spent and starts feeling confident.

Bellingham and Kobel both fanned on Eduardo Camavinga‘s chipped ball into the box. The Englishman, who was not having a great game, took a moment and grabbed the post with both hands, bowing his head. For an instant, you wondered if he was going to rip it out of the ground out of frustration. Instead, he turned, shook his head and jogged back. If you looked closely, you might even have seen a wry smile, as if he knew “we got this.”

Moments later, Vinicius — another star with a first half to forget — showed just why this is a sport created by the divine for the enjoyment of humans. With veteran defender Mats Hummels advancing toward him as he advanced down the flank, he quickly sent the ball one way, went the other way, collected the ball again and then nutmegged Julian Ryerson by the touchline a few steps later. There was so much beauty, grace, impudence and agility in one move that it served as a reminder of what Madrid could serve up. And that they were beginning to feel it.

It was the prelude to the goal: not a thing of beauty in isolation, but a moment of cunning and patience. Toni Kroos, playing his final game of club football after announcing his retirement, sent a corner that Dani Carvajal redirected past Kobel, stealing a jump on Fullkrug. Madrid 1, Dortmund 0. There were less than 15 minutes left on the clock, but there was already an air of permanence as if some prophecy had been fulfilled.

The remainder of the game saw a succession of Madrid chances — Bellingham and Camavinga from distance, a Nacho header that Kobel tipped over — before Vinicius joined the party by finishing off a counterattack after Dortmund gave the ball away in their own half. Madrid 2, Dortmund 0. Game over.

Shortly after the game, Ancelotti embraced Dortmund manager Edin Terzic and whispered in his ear. Nineteen years earlier, Ancelotti’s Milan had dominated an opponent (Liverpool) in the first half only to eventually lose on penalties. On that occasion — unlike Terzic’s side — they had actually converted their chances, going 3-0 up. Terzic can choose to dwell on this, and how his brilliantly executed game plan came to nothing, or he can remind himself that in the midst of a rough season that saw his team tumble from second to fifth in the Bundesliga, forcing the club to pick up two players on loan (Sancho and Ian Maatsen) and chuck them straight into the starting lineup, they at least did their fans proud in the Champions League. And that’s what he needs to bottle: remember the good times, and build on those.

As for Real Madrid, 2023-24 was supposed to be a transition season. Karim Benzema was gone, Kylian Mbappé stayed in Paris (though that will change), Toni Kroos enjoyed his own “Last Dance” and, possibly, the same will be true for Luka Modric, too. There were long-term injuries for his defensive spine, too, with Courtois absent in goal and the center-back tandem of David Alaba and Éder Militão missing for virtually the entire campaign. And yet the 2023-24 season ended in triumph, winning another LaLiga title and becoming champions of Europe for the 15th time.

If you know who you are, if you know what you have, you can turn it around and write your own story. Especially if you’ve done it before. Just as Real Madrid did after half-time at Wembley, and just as they did this season long.