This was not supposed to be his night. Three times Gareth Bale had enjoyed excellent opportunities to score in a Champions League final for Real Madrid, three times he had wasted them. But then, thanks to the most dramatic of injury-time reprieves from the head of Sergio Ramos, the most expensive player in the history of football did what he had been brought to do: restore Real Madrid to the peak of the European game.
When Angel Di Maria, brilliant throughout 120 minutes and given the man-of-the-match award by Sir Alex Ferguson, made a late charge past the knackered and desolate Juanfran and saw his effort loop up into the air, it was Bale, so nondescript for much of added time, who had carried on his run to the back post to sneak a header inside the post.
The £86 million signing secured something priceless: Real Madrid's 10th European Cup. La Decima. Marcelo made sure in the 118th minute and Cristiano Ronaldo converted a late penalty to rub it in, but by that point Atleti had already been broken by Bale. So cruelly broken.
For 92 minutes this inestimably admirable Atleti side shut out the most expensively assembled attack in the history of football. Fought like their lives were at stake. This was almost a breathless, glorious conclusion to one of the greatest stories ever told in football, a triumph which would have reshaped our expectations of what we can expect from the modern game.
A Liga title, won last weekend at Barcelona, was more than anyone outside of Diego Simeone's inner circle could have wished for from their campaign, symbolising as it did a rare triumph for industry over finance, an inversion of the natural order of things. But still, the pain of being denied a first European Cup in such a manner will linger a long while yet. Not least because for much of this tempestuous Madrid derby, it was Atleti who were the better side. Significantly so.
When Diego Godin's header looped over Iker Casillas after a catastrophic error from the Madrid keeper, Simeone's side deserved their lead, and held on to it tenaciously in a performance which proved yet again their remarkable capacity to control a game as a team, and showcased the immense levels of commitment which have earned them so much credit.
But Real Madrid just could not let it happen. So much had been said about La Decima ahead of Madrid's first Champions League final since 2002, so much pressure placed on these players, that they couldn't let it slip. Not like this. Not against this team. So when Atleti, holding a 1-0 lead, conceded a corner a full three minutes into injury time, Ramos took it upon himself to direct a header into the corner of the net.
What followed was an unutterably cruel denouement. Atleti were far better than a three-goal defeat, but the early loss of Diego Costa - “we caught each other's eye and we just knew,” said Simeone of his early removal due to a recurrent hamstring problem – did not assist their cause as their famous fitness deserted them just when it was most required.
As the finest collective to grace the Champions League in many a year wilted, it was the individual talents of Real Madrid who made the difference, most notably so in Bale. Once a Southampton left-back playing in the Championship, now a Real Madrid star competing in the Champions League final, the Bale story is a compelling one. Yet just when Real Madrid needed him to perform, with a 10th European Cup in their sights, he at first proved unable to live up to the feats of the greats who have preceded him in the club's shirt.
In the first half he wasted a wonderful chance – the kind he would have buried for Tottenham – after pouncing on a loose pass from Tiago and charging through the Atleti defence, only to fire wide. In the second half, his woe continued. Bale shot wide after a lay-off from Cristiano Ronaldo and then missed yet again when getting in behind Diego Godin and toe-poking the ball into the side netting.
Of Bale's goal, his redemption, Ancelotti said: “It was very important because it is true he tried before and he didn't have a good shot at goal. But at the right moment he was ready to score. Not only today but for all the season Gareth was really good and I'm sure he will be better next year.”
The Italian, who had his press conference interrupted by an ebullient group of Real Madrid players who broke into the press room to spray champagne and celebrate with their manager, added: “I am extremely happy because we have managed a title that for Real Madrid is very important. When I arrived I said [of Madrid's trophy cabinet], 'there's one missing here, let's get it this year'. And we did.”
Ronaldo had his moment too in Lisbon. It was at this very stadium on July 4, 2004, that a 19-year-old Ronaldo was forced to endure his most visceral and heart-rending moment in football as Greece, stubbornly refusing to follow the script, denied Portugal their destiny, beating the hosts 1-0 in the final of Euro 2004. As the TV camera panned to Ronaldo, tears came streaming out of his eyes, desolation pouring out of his face. His bottom lip curled inwards as he looked to the sky, but he could no longer contain his emotion and down plunged his head as he sobbed his heart out.
Here his face contorted into a mixture of delight and arrogance as he removed his shirt after firing home a penalty to make it 4-1.
This was far from the perfect performance. Indeed, he hardly had a sniff in the first half and proved wasteful in the second. But he had the last say, just as you knew he would. And having lifted the Champions League in the same season as winning the Ballon d'Or, this has been almost a perfect year.
Had Ramos not altered fate's deep currents with that injury-time header, the same could have been said of Madrid's opponents' campaign. But still their fans sang 'Atleti' from the stands, even as Madrid lifted the trophy. An enduring element of this final was surely Atleti's vast achievement of pushing Madrid so close to disaster, but ultimately the telling imprint belongs to Madrid, Bale and Ronaldo. Ultimate quality brought the ultimate prize.
Tom Adams in Lisbon - On Twitter: @tomEurosport
- Sports & Recreation
- Real Madrid
- Gareth Bale
- Champions League
- Cristiano Ronaldo
- Sergio Ramos
- Diego Simeone