- Champions League final
Atletico's one chance at glory slips away
For 93 minutes, it looked as if collective effort could deny the forces of commerce and individualism.
Atletico, desperately tired by then, would have been worthy winners. Instead, the dream was denied by Sergio Ramos' header, spirits crushed by a painful extra time period.
"It was a lovely thing we had in our grasp," admitted disappointed but philosophical manager Diego Simeone.
They came so close.
The eventual scoreline was desperately harsh and Cristiano Ronaldo's shirt-off celebration of the fourth goal hugely excessive. It was the type of egotism that Atletico's efforts had come so close to obliterating. Gareth Bale's header to take the lead had already provided proof that money talks - eventually.
Had Real lost, Lisbon would become their city of great shame. Atletico, whose red-and-white stripes dominated the city on gameday, take away huge pride from Portugal's capital. Even in defeat, they could sing of their status as La Liga "campeones"; it has been the season of a lifetime for the club. The force of finance will almost certainly mean that such achievements are unlikely to be repeated soon.
The loot that all the shirt sales in China can buy proved enough to claim what Real Madrid believe is rightfully theirs. Atletico looked the well-oiled machine that Real's expensive but leaky cabriolet would fail to live with, but eventually, it ran out of gas. "You have to look at it overall," said Simeone. "Real Madrid was better in the second half. We couldn't emerge."
Like Borussia Dortmund from 2013's final, Atletico's achievements are hardly lessened by defeat, no matter the scoreline that enters the record books. Along with Jurgen Klopp, Simeone will still lead the 'most wanted' list. And like Klopp, Simeone seems prepared to stay on and build again, even after his squad is pillaged by a monied elite not nearly as good at team-building, but far more able to pay wages that footballers will not refuse.
"I told my players that there is no point in crying when you have played so well in this match," said Simeone. "I feel bitter that I did not reach the objective, but not sad. I wish I could have won the way I wanted. I am calm and I can overcome this. Once you have given your all, there is another match, there are other players. You just have to keep going."
"I congratulated him before the game on winning the league," said victorious Real coach Carlo Ancelotti in a respectful tribute to his opposite number. "And after the game, the same. We have to respect the team that doesn't win but fights all the time. Atletico deserved to be in this final, but at the end, we deserved to win."
That comparative lack of resources had forced Simeone into a losing gamble. Diego Costa's departure in the ninth minute was damning proof that horse placenta is no miracle cure. There were eyebrows raised by those who watched his training performance on the eve of the final: Arda Turan, dropped altogether, had looked far fitter. The risk taken with Costa was not only a waste of a substitution but possibly the end of the striker's World Cup hopes.
"It was my responsibility and obviously I made a mistake," said Simeone, before describing the moment he knew the striker's final was over. "We looked at each other, we caught each other's eye and we didn't want to waste any more time on the field."
Simeone was the usual hamster-in-a-wheel presence on the sidelines. Early in the first half, he stepped on the pitch to control a loose ball, and played peacemaker as Ronaldo became increasingly riled with heavy-duty defending. The Argentine's energy levels had not faded by extra time. Twice, referee Bjorn Kuipers, having blown the whistle, was confronted by a black-clad figure bounding toward him with intent, the second time as part of an unseemly brawl that preceded the end. It was not a final played with Corinthian spirit; familiarity bred contempt and a repeated flow of fouls.
Raphael Varane's unsportsmanlike clattering of the ball at the Atletico bench was the final spark of a running battle begun by Raul Garcia's first-half scything lunge on Angel Di Maria. It was the type of cynicism Garcia's coach trademarked as a player, though Sergio Ramos' 40-yard dash to get involved was wholly unnecessary, but typical of a player whose brain is all too rarely engaged. Simeone's disciples clearly knew which frustration buttons to press on their aristocratic opponents.
Despite his goal, Ronaldo's reputation for freezing on the big occasion is no less enhanced. Atleti knocks never let him settle. He was not as fit as Ancelotti had suggested in pre-match. As at Rome in 2009, there was a sense he wanted this too much; desperation rarely attracts success. Gareth Bale, three times firing horribly wide, had looked to have let destiny's promise get to him, too. Until his goal, it seemed the £86 million man might be remembered forever as an Atletico folk hero.
Feeding on Real's weakness of character was always the prime Atletico route to success. Without Costa, their goal threat was too anaemic; David Villa played well, but never looked his previous predatory self, and was too often a satellite of his colleagues. A single goal well-defended was always the plan. Diego Godin's header provided part one. The tired defending that allowed Ramos' free header denied a mission's accomplishment.
A tiny figure in his team's huddle before extra time, Simeone was frenzied, punching the air in rhythm with bellowing exhortations to put such a crippling disappointment behind his team. It could not deliver the desired effect. Real resumed their waves of attack and Atletico's deep tension line suggested that penalties were their remaining crumb to cling to. When Di Maria, the player Atletico most struggled with all night, broke to supply Bale's crucial goal, hopes of perhaps the most amazing season of all were crushed.
This article originally appeared on ESPN FC