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By the end he could barely walk. He looked as though he played half-injured from his thigh strain. He was some distance from his best. And yet, come that final moment, when Real Madrid needed a penalty to be scored to win a record 11th European Cup, it was, of course, inevitably Cristiano Ronaldo who stepped up.

Ronaldo the star of the game
Ronaldo the star of the game

Somehow, he is destined to dominate. He stood opposite Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak, his legs astride in that quasi-macho pose he loves so much.

And he struck a simple penalty, almost straight down the middle, as Oblak dived away from the ball.

He grinned, he strutted and he ripped his shirt off. Of course he did: that gym work is not for nothing. Soon he was submerged under a heap of grateful team-mates.

Others had contributed more to the win. Casemiro had held the midfield together through some difficult times; Sergio Ramos’ personality had dominated the game, from the opening goal to his incessant complaining; and Gareth Bale, early on, had been the most significant player in their team.

In the end, though, there is only one leader of this side. For now, at least, Bale will have to wait his turn. A season which has often been chaotic, haphazard and saw Rafa Benitez dismissed and a rookie coach appointed in Zinedine Zidane, ends in historic achievement.

‘I’m very happy,’ said Zidane, a winner as a player for Real Madrid in 2002. ‘I have dreamed of this. But it’s not easy. We’ve worked hard. Physically we suffered. All the players had cramp. And mentally it was a lot of pressure to bear. But in the end you have to fight and we have achieved what we wanted. And when you achieve something as big as this it means a lot for the club.’

As for their cross-city rivals, Atletico, it all ends desperately again. In 1974 they came within seconds; in 2014, against Real Madrid, they were again just moments from getting across the line; last night they came within a penalty kick of winning this trophy.

Juanfran, so excellent for them this season, a man who started his career at Real Madrid was their fall guy. He hit the post with Atletico’s fourth penalty, which allowed Ronaldo his moment. Before that, Lucas Vazquez, Marcelo, Gareth Bale and Sergio Ramos had all confidently rolled their penalties into the right-hand corner.

Antoine Griezmann, Gabi and Saul Niguez had done the same, but to the left side, for Atletico. As ever in these contests the tension became unbearable and Juanfran succumbed. It was excruciating to watch them miss out again, having disposed of Bayern and Barcelona en route to this final.

Their commander in chief, Diego Simeone, who has brought them this far on a fraction of the budget of his rivals and all the Premier League giants, attempted to rally the troops at the end. ‘I told the players: “Don’t cry, guys. You’ve made enormous efforts to get here”,’ said the Argentine.

‘Football is destiny and it’s clear today it was against us. I feel most for those fans who travelled here, who paid for their tickets. When I see their disappointment, that’s when I feel it most.

As soon as the second half started, they revived their hopes, Griezmann playing in Fernando Torres, who drew a foul from Pepe. Griezmann stepped up for the penalty. Keylor Navas was booked for trying to delay it. The Frenchman struck it hard and high and against the underside of the bar. It felt like a crushing blow.

And yet Atletico pushed on, Greizmann shining despite his miss. They dominated possession for the next 15 minutes. Yannick Carrasco, on as a sub, broke down the right, pulled in a cross for Saul Niguez to produce an acrobatic flick which almost beat Navas.

Benzema might have finished it but for the excellent Oblak just past the hour. Ronaldo, likewise, over-elaborating on 78 minutes allowing Oblak to save and Bale’s return being cleared off the line. Countering immediately, Atletico broke with a lovely lofted ball releasing Juanfran. He fired it across goal and Carrasco raced in to slide it home from a few yards out. Hope was restored.

In extra time, Real Madrid were falling: Ronaldo succumbing to fatigue and reduced to occasional bursts.

At times he looked ready to surrender, but Real Madrid had used all their subs.

Bale went down with cramp, though he attempted an overhead kick nonetheless and seized up midway.

Atletico seemed stronger, fitter. It seemed their moment had come.

As before, it was not to be.

The Daily Mail

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