UEFA.com's Real Madrid reporter Joe Walker reflects on another record-breaking campaign, when not even Europe's meanest defence could hold back the relentless tide of goals.
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Real Madrid's bid to become the first club to successfully defend the UEFA Champions League title began in arguably typical style. Trailing 1-0 at home to Sporting CP in Group F, Zinédine Zidane's side looked to be in trouble as the clock struck 89 minutes; however, as is so often the case with Madrid, when the hour came so did the man. Cristiano Ronaldo sent an unstoppable free-kick into the top corner, then Álvaro Morata nodded a stoppage-time winner to send the Santiago Bernabéu wild. "El Madrid nunca se rinde" – Madrid never give up – goes the phrase, and it came to define an exceptional campaign.
This article is from the official 2017 UEFA Super Cup programme. Get your copy here.
One for the memory
If not necessarily the highest-quality match, the 3-3 thriller at Legia Warszawa on matchday four had everything. Wonder-goals, a rousing comeback, questionable defending and a dramatic finish courtesy of Mateo Kovačić's late equaliser – and even then Lucas Vázquez rattled the bar with the very last kick. It was end-to-end stuff, an old-fashioned slugfest in which tactics and gameplans went out of the window. The eventual draw fairly reflected a contest which had left us journalists as exhausted as the players.
Zidane's magic touch
Many wondered if Zidane would be able to repeat the incredible success of his first six months in charge, yet he eclipsed perhaps his own expectations by landing Madrid's first Spanish Liga/European Cup double in 59 years. Even if blessed with a squad of superstars, the Frenchman deserved great credit for his ability to rotate and keep them happy and focused on the job. Moreover, his switch from 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 diamond in the wake of Gareth Bale's injury proved a masterstroke, enabling Ronaldo to move more central and score the goals that fuelled the march to glory.
"It's something I've been working on," said Casemiro after his Bernabéu wonder goal against Napoli in the round of 16. "We do shooting practice every day and it's something I really train for, with me breaking forward and getting chances from the edge of the box." Surely, though, not even the Brazilian midfielder could have imagined scoring so spectacularly. With Madrid having recovered from Lorenzo Insigne's opener to lead Napoli 2-1, the first leg was still in the balance when Napoli's Raúl Albiol cleared his lines on 54 minutes. However, the ball looped up for Casemiro to rifle a perfectly timed volley into the far corner from 30 metres. The Merengues had a foot in the quarter-finals.
The most electric atmosphere of the entire campaign came in the semi-final second leg. A local derby, the stadium packed to the rafters with both sets of supporters for the last-ever European game at the Vicente Calderón: this was something special. And when Atlético went 2-0 up inside 16 minutes – to reduce the aggregate arrears to 2-3 – the place was rocking. The Bernabéu had produced similar special effects when Marco Asensio completed the 4-2 victory over Bayern München in extra time of the quarter-final second leg. After so much tension, came the outpouring of joy and relief.
After, by his extremely high standards, a quiet group stage, Ronaldo burst into life at the business end of the season. Back-to-back hat-tricks in the quarters and semis, taking him past 100 UEFA Champions League goals (105 in total) – an incredible 54 of which have come in knockout matches – were the reason Madrid made it to Cardiff. "There are no words to do Cristiano Ronaldo justice," Zidane had said of his No7 before the final against Juventus. "He shows what he's all about every time he's on the pitch. These are unbelievable stats, but with him anything's possible." Ronaldo duly vindicated his manager with a double past Gianluigi Buffon.
There are several contenders for this award, but Luka Modrić gets the vote. "He's the player who makes the team play. When he's on it, the team are much better," is how the legendary Raúl González described Modrić recently, and he is right. The 31-year-old makes his side tick, linking defence and attack with his guile, vision and passing range. Honourable mentions go to Casemiro, Marcelo and Dani Carvajal.
'Madrid always score but they also concede'
That was Bayern boss Carlo Ancelotti's pre-quarter-final assessment, but the facts are equally vigorous. The Blancos kept just one clean sheet all campaign – in the 3-0 semi-final first-leg taming of Atlético – but crucially they found the net in every European fixture. In fact, they finished the season having scored in a record 65 successive games in all competitions, from the 2015/16 UEFA Champions League semi-final first-leg stalemate at Manchester City onwards.
One to watch
Look no further than Asensio: if a stunning strike on his Madrid debut in last year's UEFA Super Cup announced his breakthrough season, the electric attacking midfielder promptly went from strength to strength. He netted and was named man of the match on his UEFA Champions League bow, sealed the defeat of Bayern, and then notched the fourth as a late substitute in the final. The 21-year-old also won the silver ball at the UEFA European Under-21 Championship. Next up: a starting place in Zidane's side.