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29 June 2017

FEATURE: Could this be the greatest story ever told – Leicester City annexing the EPL or Real Madrid defending the Champions League?

 

“Believe you can and you are halfway there” – Theodore Roosevelt.

It is easier, almost effortless to chance on records after records in sports.

In NBA, Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers have just set a record for meeting in 3 consecutive finals. Consequently, Golden State Arrows are on the verge of smashing Cavs with a stunning 3 – 1 lead. They only need a win out of the next three games to be crowned champions.

In football, Barcelona FC won the sextuple (6 trophies) in 2009. In Athletics, Usain ‘Lightening’ Bolts smashed every record in the 100m, 200m and 400 x 100m relay. The New Zealand All Blacks is historical in rugby and quiet rightly so. ‘Avatar’ is still the highest grossing film ($2.7m) in history eclipsing ‘Titanic.’ Nonetheless, the debate goes on unabated.

The ultimate question is; which is the greatest achievement? Put differently, which is the greatest story ever told? Is it Leicester winning the EPL against all odds in 2016 or Real Madrid breaking the purported insurmountable jinx by defending the coveted Champions League trophy against mighty Juventus at last?

Punters had placed Leicester City at a whopping 5000/1 at the commencement of the league and who could begrudge them? What this simply meant was that it would take them 5000years to ever annex the English Premiership once. It sounded befuddling but factual. No one gave them a chance to even come close to qualifying for Europe (finishing in the top 6, to say the least).

Such is the inexplicable and astounding storyline behind their success. Punters couldn’t be wrong though. For a team that was languishing at the bottom of the table and had to battle tooth and nail the previous season for survival and winning it in the following season is simply put – breathtaking. Superlative is prevalent in sports. “Good may be parlayed to great, great to fantastic, fantastic to sensational”, sensational to scintillating, scintillating to remarkable, remarkable to incredible, incredible to stratospheric and upwards. These expressions add up to the excitement in sports.

For instance, Usain ‘lightening’ Bolts won 3 gold medals at the Beijing Olympics… 100m, 200m and 4 x 100m relay, smashing the age-long records in the three disciplines; In the same games, the greatest Olympian, Michael Phelps, had a clean sweep, winning 8 gold medals; Guardiola’s Barcelona won every title on sight in 2009, capturing 6 in total. Real Madrid won ‘La Decima’, their tenth Champions League in 2014, hitting double figures. They repeated the feat (winning ‘Undecima), the eleventh in 2016, defeating the same opponents in Atletico.

Blackburn stunned the world and won the Premiership in 1995 with a certain Alan Shearer in their fold. Kenny ‘King’ Dalglish who was in the dugout masterminded the achievement. The motto of the club is “Arte et Labore”, “By Skill and Hard Work” in Latin. Their relentless display pretty sums up what their motto stands for. On the hand, Manchester City won their first ever English Premier League with seconds to play, remember that Aguero’s showstopper? They won the league right at the death. We might never have this experience again.

Liverpool (Unbeliverpool) won the champions league in 2005. Having gone down by 3-0 at half time against AC Milan, they clawed back the lead and equalized in a 6mins span. By the 90th minute, the scoreboard read 3–3. They went on to win on penalties after a pulsating extra time. This is usually heralded as the “Miracle of Istanbul.”

But truth be told, there’s nothing quite like Leicester’s unprecedented feat. From relegation to championship in 2 years is simply phenomenal.

I have my doubts if we can ever come close to this. The strands to this achievement are jaw-dropping;

    • (1) Claudio Ranieri, ‘the nearly man’, ‘the tinkerman’ was sacked by Greece for losing to Faroe’s Island. His appointment was deemed a huge gamble but didn’t that pay off? I harbour an entrenched position that he should be knighted just like Sir Alex Ferguson was.

 

    • (2) Seven, yes seven of their players were nominated for the PFA player of the year accolade. Sensational.

 

    • (3) Two of their players, Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy took home gold and silver respectively. N’Golo Kante came fourth lagging behind Harry Kane (Tottenham)

 

    • (4) In the FWA’s player of the year gong, Leicester City had a clean sweep, winning gold, silver and bronze. The baton changed a bit this time round as Vardy, Mahrez and Kante followed in that order.

 

    • (5) Remember Leicester City bought three of their best players for a little above £1m. Vardy was playing in a fourth tier a couple of years ago, Mahrez failed a trial at St. Mirren in Scotland and Kante was virtually unknown in France.

 

    • (6) For the records, Mahrez is the first African player ever to win the PFA player of the year gong.

 

    • (7) Peter Schmeichel, a Man Utd legend won his first premiership aged 29, on May 2. His son, Leicester’s goalkeeper, Kasper Schmeichel repeated that feat by winning the premiership also aged 29, in May 2. Is it by fate or dint of hardwork? It is probably a discussion for another time.

 

Their game plan was clearly spelt out. A little dilly-dallying, then a “dilly-ding, dilly dong.” It was a simple strategy; defend gallantly and switch the ball to quick-feet Mahrez who could shimmer past two or three defenders; lays it off to the fearless and pacey Jamie Vardy and the chapter is closed.

Real Madrid’s performances at start of the season were lacklustre if not abysmal. Confidence was at its lowest ebb. The appointment of Rafa Benitez did nothing to revive it. He always wanted to be seen and addressed as the boss and accorded the utmost respect. Results were inconsistent.

One big mistake he inadvertently made was when he emphatically informed the squad that he would build his team around Gareth Bale and make him the fulcrum of Real’s attack. Bale was then withdrawn from the right flank to the number 10 role. It worked to perfection initially. Bale was on song, even scored a quadruple in the 10-2 annihilation of Granada. This strategy produced instant results but was detrimental to Ronaldo’s performances. It dipped drastically as he was disinterested in the game. He was typically unhappy with the fact that Bale and not him has been made the ‘top-dog’ (lynch-pin) in the Madrid team.

He even admitted to leaving Madrid in that summer. Something was reasonably not right and had to change and fast. While Bale was glowing, Ronaldo was dimming. Differing fortunes. Florentino Perez realized it and did what we had come to expect. Benitez was sacked during the first half of the season.

The innocuous appointment of Zinedine ‘Zizou’ Zidane in the second half of the season raised some eyebrows. In fact, he failed to inspire the Castilla (the B team of Real Madrid) to promotion during his stint with them. He had other ideas though. He knew he had to win over the dressing room by man-managing the players. He restored confidence and self-belief with alacrity.

Having played and gone through the Madrid system, he understood the plight of the players by identifying with them. He motivated them and was able to bring back their mojo. His legendary status made it easier to earn the respect and admiration of the dressing room. In his short stay he set unprecedented records.

He won the Champions League, the World Club Cup and the UEFA Super Cup, defeating Atletico Madrid, Kashima Antlers and Sevilla respectively during the 2015/16 season.

He won twelve consecutive league matches to claw back the unassailable lead to finish just a point behind Barcelona. They knew there was no margin for error during the run in. In the 2016/17 season, Real Madrid knew winning the league was a possibility. They hadn’t won the league since 2011/12, so they prioritized the league over the champions league and went for the juggler. They were still serving a two-year FIFA ban for signing underage players.

They recalled Marco Asensio from loan at Espanyol and promoted Mariano and Enzo Zidane from Castilla. It was then time to get down to work. Zidane hit the ground running from the onset. His biggest challenge was cajoling Ronaldo to rest and be at optimal physical and mental condition at the business end of the season. Ronaldo somehow alluded to this claim and the rest is history. My world! Didn’t that work wonders? His 16 goals in the last 8 games is a testament. This include: hat tricks against Bayern Munich and Atletico, braces against Sevilla and Celta Vigo, one at Malaga and arguably the biggest, two in the finals of the Champions League becoming the first player to score in 3 different finals.

What makes the final even more remarkable is the fact that Juventus had only conceded 3 goals prior to the grand finale, yet, when the final whistle was blown, it was 4 more. Their much-touted watertight defense had no answers to the assault of irrepressible Ronaldo and his cohorts. History was rewritten.

The onslaught started with Ronaldo scoring with his first meaningful touch. Juve pulled parity with a spectacular overhead kick by Mandzukic. One for the ages! Ronaldo’s second was more of a predatory instinct than style. It was still a good goal since Buffon had the first post covered; yet, he managed to delicately chip it over him.

Ronaldo’s second, Real Madrid’s third was the final nail to Juve’s coffin and took the wind out of their sails. Any faint hope of a response was dashed with this killer blow. This was unanimously the best second half performance we have witnessed in the champions league final.

Real Madrid stifled Juve in midfield and pushed them farther back. The midfield trio of indefatigable Casemiro, majestic Kross-control and magical Modric worked in tandem and brought their A-game to full effect. Juventus had no answers to this spectacular display.

The result could have been more humiliating had Madrid taken all the chances they had. The debate about whom between Ronaldo and Buffon should win the Ballon d’or and FIFA’s Best was eventually settled. Allegri said of Ronaldo after the game, ‘he seems to be knapping all game and one moment he punishes you.”

It sounds humongous to hear a lot of pundits and connoisseurs of the game lambasting and chiding Juve for a bad second half but failing to give maximum credit to Real Madrid who came out with all guns blazing. Fact is they didn’t allow Juve a moment to settle in the second half, in simplicita. The message Zidane put across was simple.

“You’re the best, go out and have fun and prove to the world.” The message really worked to perfection. Even Zidane was mesmerized by the display and the results. It became a one-way traffic thereon in the end.

By beating Juventus in the finals of the Champions League, Real Madrid broke several records; (1) Real Madrid becomes the first team to defend the Champions League in the current format. (2) They scored in every single game played in the season, 65 in total, breaking Bayern’s record of 61 but some way short of the world record held by Pele’s Santos at 74 consecutive games. (3) Having won 3 of the last 4 editions, they become the first team to do so in the current format. (4) Zidane becomes the first manager (coach) to win and defend the Champions League in the current format. (5) Ronaldo becomes the first player to score in 3 Champions League finals in the current format. (6) Sergio Ramos becomes the first captain to the hold the Champions League trophy aloft for 2 consecutive times in the current format. (7) Real Madrid wins both La Liga and Champions together for the first time in 59years since 1958.

There will never be anything quiet dumbfounding and unprecedented like what Leicester City has given us. However, Real Madrid broke the hex by defending their Champions League on Saturday becoming the first team ever to do so in the current format. It had to be Real Madrid. Who else?

A lesson I have gathered is that if one genuinely believes in himself, not with an arrogance of uncertainty but a true inner security, dedication, commitment and sheer endurance, nothing is insurmountable.

A lot have tried and failed. Many will try to emulate this feat; many more will never get close to this. I feel blessed to have witnessed this once in a lifetime achievement. This might probably be the greatest story (rarity or if like reality) ever told.

Need I say anything more?

By: Samuel Owusu-Ansah



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