Kings of Europe: Real Madrid reaffirm status as Champions League experts

Real Madrid's Vinicius Junior celebrates with the trophy after winning the Champions League final soccer match between Liverpool and Real Madrid at the Stade de France in Saint Denis near Paris, Sunday, May 29, 2022. Real Madrid defeated Liverpool 1-0. (Manu Fernandez/AP)

For the 14th time, Real Madrid are European champions after defeating Liverpool 1-0 at the Stade de France in Saturday's UEFA Champions League final.

In a match that was largely overshadowed by UEFA's horrific disorganization, leading to a 35-minute delay for the kickoff, Madrid proved their mettle throughout the knockout stages. Los Blancos have mounted unprecedented comebacks against PSG, Chelsea and Manchester City. They plotted and lied in the weeds before seizing their opportunity on Saturday.

Real Madrid and the Champions League: they're like peanut butter and jam.

Here are three thoughts from Saturday's final.

Unsung heroes deliver

All of the focus from a Real Madrid perspective ahead of this game was on Karim Benzema and their ageless midfield trio. While Benzema had a goal controversially ruled out and the midfielders made their presence felt, it was a pair of Madrid's less heralded players who produced the winning moment.

The winner itself was beautifully worked. Liverpool's Fabinho, Thiago and Luis Diaz attempted to cut off Dani Carvajal, but he successfully slipped it through to Casemiro, who found Federico Valverde all alone on the right touchline.

That enabled the Uruguayan to bomb down the flank against Virgil van Dijk, who was caught in two minds: push up towards Valverde and allow Carvajal to overlap unchallenged, or hold his position. He opted for the latter, with Valverde picking out the onrushing Vinicius Junior at the back post.

In doing so, Vinicius became the youngest goal-scorer in a Champions League final since Lionel Messi in 2009 and fifth-youngest overall.

For a player who has been hyped up since the age of 16, it's easy to forget that Vinicius is still just 21 years old, and this is the year he's boosted his underlying numbers. The Brazilian averaged 0.39 expected goals (xG) and 0.26 expected assists (xA) per 90 minutes this season in La Liga and the Champions League combined, leading to a total of 20 goals and 16 assists. Not only is he creating more chances, he's attempting higher-quality shots and the Brazilian is reaping the rewards.

Make no mistake, he's a proper Galáctico now.

But take nothing away from Valverde, either. The assist aside, the 23-year-old was working tirelessly off the ball to assist Carvajal against Diaz and Andy Robertson all game long. Those efforts helped nullify Liverpool's left-sided duo.

Federico Valverde's heat map (left) and defensive actions (right) vs. Liverpool. (via Telemundo Deportes)

All in a day's work for Madrid's unsung heroes.

Shutting down flanks

Dani Carvajal was responsible for perhaps the strongest defensive display in the final, with the aforementioned assistance of Federico Valverde.

No matter what Diaz attempted – cutting inside or having Liverpool's defence hit long, diagonal passes over the top of Madrid's back line – he couldn't beat Carvajal. Eventually, the Colombian was replaced by Diogo Jota in the 65th minute.

In total, Carvajal completed four tackles, seven recoveries, three clearances, two blocks and two interceptions. Simply sublime.

But it wasn't solely a Madrid-dominated area of the match. Ibrahima Konate was excellent containing Vinicius Junior, an honour only he can claim amongst Liverpool defenders.

This final was always going to be defined by its individual battles, specifically on the wings. It's fitting, then, that the only goal was created on Liverpool's left wing with the other three factions holding firm.

Clutch Courtois

This writer might be biased as a proud card-carrying member of the goalkeepers' union, but there's no denying how impactful Thibaut Courtois was in the final.

Courtois made a record-breaking nine saves in the final, and so many were jaw-dropping. It's almost difficult to pick out the best save.

Whether he's diving low to his left after teetering to his right...

Or somehow getting a palm onto Sadio Mane's scorcher from distance...

Or this miraculous stop on Mohamed Salah...

The difficulty of pulling off these saves when Courtois stands at 6-foot-6 cannot be understated. Goalkeepers need to be ridiculously agile to get down low as quick as possible, which isn't easy for anyone of Courtois' stature.

Obviously xG isn't the be-all, end-all statistic but it can highlight a brilliant defensive performance or a heroic goalkeeping display, and we witnessed the latter on Saturday. There is very little chance that Real Madrid lift the trophy without their Belgian shot-stopper.

When submitting content, please abide by our  submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.
We use cookies to improve your experience. Learn More or change your cookie preferences. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the use of cookies.