Cristiano Ronaldo understandably took the accolades as his two goals helped to fire Real Madrid to a 12th European Cup but fundamental to their triumph over Juventus on Saturday was midfielder Luka Modric.
Madrid ran out 4-1 winners in the final at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium but endured a tough first half with Juventus dominating the play until Croatian Modric took control of the game.
The score was at 1-1 after Ronaldo had netted against the run of play and Mario Mandzukic had equalised but Juventus were creating the better chances and Gianluigi Buffon’s net had otherwise gone untroubled.
However, with Modric’s steadying influence increasing, the tide turned in favour of Zinedine Zidane’s side and they stormed to victory, firing more goals past Buffon than the three he had conceded in the rest of the tournament.
Gareth Bale, like Modric a former Tottenham player, had been the focus of the build-up to the game but Modric proved crucial to Madrid’s successful defence of the title.
“The first half was even. Juventus came out strong. We didn’t have possession,” Zidane told reporters.
“The second half was better. I told them to continue with what we were doing but putting more pressure on them and playing with more width.”
With Madrid playing a 4-4-2 formation with a diamond midfield and featuring no traditional wingers, the onus fell on Modric and Toni Kroos to occupy wider spaces.
Modric created Ronaldo’s second goal from the right wing, elegantly skipping towards the byline before pulling back the ball for Ronaldo to smash home and effectively kill the game.
Beyond his assist, the 31-year-old’s elegance on the ball, his eye for a pass and capacity for making the right decisions, helped to open up angles for Real Madrid to hit Juventus time after time on the break.
“(Zidane) said that we need to be more aggressive, to not allow Juve to keep the ball easily like they did in the first half after our goal,” Modric told reporters.
“We feel we are an amazing team and need to just keep doing what we are doing because I think we can win many more titles in the future.”
While Ronaldo is the man who applies the killer blow, Modric is the team’s strategist, quietly working to create avenues and openings for Madrid to capitalise on.
Modric created his own piece of history too, becoming the first Croatian to win the competition three times, moving ahead of former AC Milan defender Dario Simic, who lifted the cup in 2003 and 2007.