FEATURE | Reliving the 2014 Champions League final

By 2014, the Spanish national team were coming to the end of their reign at the top of international football, but it was just the beginning of Spanish club dominance in Europe. However, unlike throughout Spanish club history, the 2014 UEFA Champions League final would not be a tale of two cities. 

For the first time ever, European football’s most coveted trophy would be contested by two teams from the same ciudad. In late May, both Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid would make the 300-mile journey to neighbouring Portugal for a hotly-anticipated match at Lisbon’s Estádio da Luz. 

After a twelve-year wait, Real Madrid were back in the final, under the steam of a clinical Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese star returned to his home nation having registered 16 goals in the competition, the most of any player in one UCL season. To this day, that record still stands. But his last Champions League win had occurred six years previously when he was at Manchester United. By 2014, some believed that he had yet to justify the €94m fee that had brought him to the Spanish giants in 2009. 

Opposite Los Blancos stood Diego Simeone’s stubborn Atlético Madrid – a defensive yet explosive side that had shown their mettle throughout the season. Just one week prior to their meeting with Real on the western edge of the Iberian peninsula, Simeone’s men became the first team in a decade to beat both Barcelona and Real Madrid to the La Liga title. They had also already knocked out Barcelona in the UCL quarter-finals that April. Los Rojiblancos carried this momentum forward, all the way to Lisbon. 

The game would be significant for both sides for different reasons. After a dazzling knockout run to the final, in which Atléti beat the UCL’s second-most successful club, AC Milan, followed by Barcelona, and recent winners Chelsea, Europe was captivated by the red-and-whites. For Atlético, as the Spanish capital’s less successful club, the trophy represented a chance to finally step out of their rivals’ shadow and make a name for themselves. 

For Real Madrid, however, the match was massive for less humble reasons. As they edged ever closer to the final, there was increasing talk of La Décima, or ‘the tenth’. Real Madrid, who had not been involved in a UCL final since Zinédine Zidane’s volley at Hampden Park 12 years earlier, were on a quest for immortality – to become the first and only club to be named European champions ten times. 

On their road to the final were three trips to Germany. Firstly, they dispatched Schalke 04 (9-2 agg.), before a trip to the team that had knocked them out the year before: Borussia Dortmund. While Madrid won the home leg convincingly (3-0), the return leg at Westfalenstadion was much closer in a 2-0 loss. In the semi-finals, Real had to face the previous year’s champions Bayern Munich. Initially touted as a clash of titans, Madrid would make light work of their opponents, managed by Pep Guardiola during his inaugural season in Germany. Bayern lost by a slim margin (1-0) away at the Santiago Bernabéu in the first leg, but were humbled at home 4-0. 

Real Madrid were not only expected to win the prestigious competition, but also there was great pressure on their shoulders to do so. Since 2002, Los Merengues not only appointed 11 different head coaches, but they had also spent more than €1 billion on new players. They even broke the transfer record twice, signing Ronaldo in 2009 for a then-record fee, followed by Gareth Bale for €101m in the summer of 2013. That period saw El Clásico rivals Barcelona win the competition three times; a Real Madrid resurgence was well overdue. 

For Atlético, many expected them merely to put up a decent fight. It was clear that they had earnt their place in the final, but Simeone’s men were clear underdogs. Even so, such a notion meant that the final was Real’s to lose, and such a mentality lent itself well to Atléti. Against Real’s possession-based approach, they would be free to play their opponents at their own counter-attacking game. To this, of course, Simeone would add dashes of simulation and cynical fouling. 

His men had already exceeded expectations that season, and the Champions League final was yet another opportunity to play out the heroic story of David and Goliath. But during the match, their grit and determination would be tested early on, as Simeone would be forced into a ninth-minute substitution. Diego Costa went down, unable to shake off a hamstring injury picked up on the last day of the season, for which he underwent horse placenta treatment in Serbia. He was Atlético’s figurehead, and his early departure might have given his side a reason to stop believing. Nonetheless, it was Atlético who controlled the first half, and a calamitous error in the box for veteran goalkeeper Iker Casillas would gift them an early lead ten minutes before half-time. 

The second half waned in favour of Atléti, who were more than willing to play the clock down as Real struggled to make clear-cut chances. Many opportunities for Real culminated in tactical fouls by Atléti, who would go on to pick up seven yellow cards to Real’s five. No other final had ever included so many bookings, and tensions were high. 

Then, with five minutes of injury time added on, disaster struck for Atléti as a Sergio Ramos header would hit the back of the net from a corner. Extra time beckoned. 

After the restart, Real continued to pile on the pressure, but struggled to break the deadlock. Then in the second half of extra time, a slaloming run from Ángel Di María left him one-on-one with Thibault Courtois, who could only parry the Argentinian’s shot into the path of a well-placed Gareth Bale, who would head home to put Real Madrid in front for the first time in the match. 

Eight minutes later, Marcelo would permeate Atlético’s tired defensive core and take a low shot, which took the Belgian keeper and his 6’7 frame by surprise. Capitulation for Simeone’s side, and a result that would be rather insulting to their performance. 

But there was a sting in the tail, as just two minutes later Ronaldo was bundled over in the box by a clumsy Gabi. He had been quiet for most of the match, but it was with the last kick of the game that the 29-year-old would make his presence known. He scored the penalty and removed his shirt in what is now one of his most iconic celebrations. 

The 2014 UCL saw Real Madrid crowned champions for a record tenth time, and for some in white, this UCL trophy would be the first of many. Only Iker Casillas and Cristiano Ronaldo had previously won the competition. It would also be the last final before the passing of Madrid legend Alfredo Di Stéfano, who died just over one month later at the age of 88. A month or so later, Germany would win the 2014 World Cup in Rio. The one player to win both the World Cup and that season’s Champions League? Sami Khedira.

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