An early flurry from Atlético Madrid gave us 25 minutes of tension, but if you strapped an EKG machine to this round of Champions League, that would be the only blip. We ended up where it always looked like we were headed: a final with Juventus and Real Madrid. Here are your winners and losers from the second leg of the semifinals.
Winner: Target Wingers
Before last week’s first leg against Monaco, Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri said something that Italian managers aren’t supposed to say: Tactics don’t matter that much. The man who wrote an 18-page thesis on a three-man midfield told The Wall Street Journal’s Joshua Robinson: “I’m against all those people who say that there’s still something to invent in football. Nobody invents in football, because it’s been the same for 100 years.”
Mario Mandzukic is 6-foot-2 striker who completed 24 crosses over the past two seasons, and has dribbled by a defender just nine times. Yet, midway through this season, Allegri successfully turned the 30-year-old Croat into a high-level winger. If that’s not a new invention, then Thomas Edison just had a lot of weirdly specific hobbies.
Mandzukic has committed to the defensive demands of Allegri’s system, and he’s also brought an auxiliary dynamic to Juve’s attack. Gonzalo Higuaín is the tip of Allegri’s formation, but he’s more of a poacher and less of a traditional target man. So, Mandzukic provides an aerial outlet and a backboard for balls on the ground — except he does it out on the wing, where he can escape from the taller center backs and, like a center getting switched onto a guard, feast on tinier wing backs. Stand a ball up at the back post, as Dani Alves did on Tuesday, and Mandzukic will go up and get it:
“There’s less tactical importance in the Champions League,” Allegri told Robinson. “The value of the individual player makes the difference.” He’s right — but someone had to put Mandzukic in the right spot.
Loser: Not Kylian Mbappé
Feel how you want to feel about Monaco and their Grace Kelly–designed kits: Maybe they’re the most exciting and unafraid collection of young talent to upend the Champions League since Ajax in the mid-1990s. Or maybe they’re a clearing house for agent fees and a symbol of the global rent-seeking enjoyed by those in a position to create it. Your call.
But on the field, Monaco were fun and different; and different outcomes make sports interesting. The club likely was riding an insane hot streak — they’ve converted their chances at a higher rate than all but a few teams this decade — but it’s also possible that their vertical, fast-break style and their emphasis on cutbacks caught opponents off guard and created high-quality chances. We’ll likely never know why they were so lethal — that’s the next step in soccer analysis — because opponents are going to adapt and some of Monaco’s key players (and maybe their manager) will get shipped out this summer.
The most sought-after of which, Kylian Mbappé, cooled off a bit in the semis, but Juve are a freezer for anyone. Against the best defense in the world, the 18-year-old still caused plenty of problems: one goal, six shots (three on target), six dribbles. Last week, Statsbomb’s Ted Knutson looked at the numbers and said, “it’s not unreasonable to put a £100M tag on [Mbappé] right now.” Tuesday’s performance won’t do anything to change that. Whoever buys him will have to break the transfer record.
Winner: Dani Alves, Again
You’ve already seen the near-assist, which, fine: typical world-class fullback stuff. A few minutes after that, though, Alves turned into Cesc Fàbregas and slipped in a through ball that looked like it was remote-controlled:
And a few minutes after that, he made me think that he could have had Steven Gerrard’s career if he wanted to:
Alves deserves some shine after nearly a decade of being overshadowed at Barcelona. Again, he’s a fullback, typically the realm of straight lines and curled crosses, yet over the past two games, Juve’s solid central structure — three center backs and two deeper midfielders — has allowed him to drift in-field and show off the kind of vision, delicate touch, and pure ball-striking that’s supposed to be exclusive to center mids. And let’s not forget: BARCELONA LET HIM GO FOR FREE. It’s a bit simplistic, but the Alves transfer is a convenient symbol for why Barca went out in the quarters, and why Juventus are in the final.
Loser: Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City, Etc.
The latest Squad Player for Real Madrid or Barcelona Who Might Be the Best Player on Literally Every Other Team on the Planet put the Atlético tie to bed with a goal in the 42nd minute.
Four years into his Real Madrid tenure, Isco’s yet to start more than 26 games in a La Liga season for the club, and in a team with Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Gareth Bale, it’s not like he should. The 25-year-old was Real’s star of the semis — misplacing one pass in the first leg, extinguishing the fire in the second. Save for maybe Bayern Munich’s Thiago, Isco is the smoothest on-ball player in the world; watching him dribble is no different than watching him jog. As an attacking midfielder, he retains the ball like a holding midfielder. He presses better than any of the attackers on Madrid — and he’s just as good of a dribbler, too. The one thing that keeps him out of the elite tier is his lack of shot production: He has 10 goals in La Liga this year, but they came on just 29 shots. He’s not gonna convert one out of three chances again next season.
Still, Isco would walk into the lineup for any team outside of Spain. Unfortunately for the rest of Europe, it looks like Madrid are going to lock him up with a new deal that runs through 2022. With Benzema hitting turning 30 this year and Bale heading down the Rafa Nadal my-own-worst-enemy career path, Isco’s newfound importance to Madrid might soon become the norm.
Winner: Win Probability
I promise we’re not going to discuss the viability of win probability; we’ve already done that, anyway. Instead, we’re going to note that Juventus and Real Madrid came into the second leg as overwhelming favorites … and they both won.
Those big numbers underscore how futile the early flurries from Atlético and Monaco were destined to be. Monaco came out and threw a couple of uppercuts into the air, while Atlético connected with two of them: a 12th-minute header from Saul and a 16th-minute penalty from Antoine Griezmann.
It looked like we were going to get a competitive game between the Madrids, except the pregame gulf was so wide that Atlético needed to follow up a perfect first 16 minutes minutes with 74 more perfect minutes. It was nice of Diego Simeone’s side to give us some tension in what looked to be a boring set of second-leg matches, but even though Atlético got the score within one, the result was never really in doubt.
The two best teams in the world will be playing in the Champions League final. Due to the randomness of the draw — and the randomness of the sport — we rarely get a matchup of no. 1 and no. 2. The 2011 final between Barcelona and Manchester United was the last time.
Since it’s only one game and managers can have an outsize impact on the outcome, finals will sometimes grind to a halt, but with Allegri vs. Zinedine Zidane, it’s one manager who openly says he doesn’t care about tactics vs. one whose tactics let his team get out and run. In other words, there’s no reason this final shouldn’t be great. Pick a story line: Madrid’s front three vs. Juve’s back three; Ronaldo and Gianluigi Buffon vs. the effects of aging; Juve’s solidity vs. Madrid’s volatility; Marcelo vs. Dani Alves — a title bout for “hipster third-party Ballon d’or candidate”; Zidane vs. his former club; Higuaín vs. his former club; smart business vs. gaudy business.
No matter who Real Madrid plays, it always feels like they’re going to win; Ronaldo is a tidal wave. But Juventus have conceded one goal in their last 710 minutes of Champions League play, and out of every club in the world, they are most able to play their own way and bat off the randomness of a one-game sample. The air went out of both of the semifinals early on, but if that’s what we needed in order to get this final, then so be it.