Previous
Cameroon
New Zealand
2:00 AM UTC
Game Details
Netherlands
Canada
2:00 AM UTC
Game Details
Sweden
United States
5:00 AM UTC
Game Details
Thailand
Chile
5:00 AM UTC
Game Details
Next

Gareth Bale an example of Real Madrid success after downing City

What's in the water in Madrid? From the European Cup's first edition in 1955-56 until 2014, no final was contested by two teams from the same city.

For 58 long years that appeared to be an impossible feat but now, for the second time in three years, Atletico and Real Madrid will do battle for a trophy which is, otherwise, so elusive that no club has retained it in its current form.

Real Madrid began the competition with a period of dominance, but how do we explain this latest episode? The 2015 Milan edition will be their 14th final, a record as unparalleled as their 10 victories.

In a season when they've not only sacked a coach but played comprehensively well on only a handful of occasions -- they've only really managed it once during the knockout stages: a 2-0 win over Roma -- they are just one step away from their fabled target of La Undecima (The Eleventh).

In knocking out Manchester City in the semifinals, Zinedine Zidane's side were absolutely the deserved winners, let there be no question about that. They possessed the stand-out player of the tie in Gareth Bale.

Having operated under strict orders from Zidane in the 0-0 draw in Manchester to prioritise organisation, the Welshman scored (though it was given as an own goal to Fernando), hit the woodwork and produced the assist of the tie to put Luka Modric one-on-one against Joe Hart in the 1-0 win at the Bernabeu.

Bale now has a number of significant performances to his name for Madrid: eliminating Bayern in 2014 semis; scoring what effectively was the winning goal in that year's final against Atletico; the 2014 Copa del Rey final where he scored a wonder-goal by running two thirds of the pitch; starring in a couple of Clasicos; and this vital night when, frankly, nobody else looked like they were going to step up.

The Welshman now has 16 goals in his last 17 matches and after rescuing six points in his last two league games, at Rayo and Real Sociedad, Zidane felt bold enough at the weekend to say "Gareth can do what Cristiano can do."

Brave words. Sure, the Welshman is beginning to score with a consistency and regularity which makes him special. But he is light years away from now, or ever, scoring so prolifically. He's special, just not CR7 special -- not in terms of goal totals. Then there's a real danger that a phrase like that could sting Ronaldo's ego sufficiently to cause either a row or ill feeling.

Yet there was Bale, with Ronaldo evidently playing because it was a European semifinal rather than because he was sharp or match-fit, hauling Madrid through to the San Siro final. The pressure was on, because of the importance of the situation, because of Ronaldo not being 100 percent fit, with Karim Benzema absent and because of Zidane's prematch words.

And Bale not only produced, he added to this knack he has (just like Fernando Torres across the city) to produce something -- a goal, an assist, a moment of destiny -- when the situation demands it.

So, is that why Madrid spent so much to bring him in? So they could have a player who possesses the game-winning DNA, the same inherent knack which Madrid's great players have possessed across the generations in order to keep on qualifying for the final of this competition?

It's worth asking because Madrid often either display wafer-thin resourcefulness and intensity in the league during the same crucial part of the year when they, somehow, qualify powerfully and gracefully for a final.

Take 2002 for example. Poor in the league for the last four or five games; unsinkable in the Hampden final when "you-know-who" scored THAT wonder-goal against Leverkusen to seal the trophy.

Or, like here, they somehow stroll into what will be a hugely anticipated showpiece in Milan having only really played impressively in this competition once (you can hardly count an 8-0 walkover of Malmo).

Zidane's 2-0 win in Rome in the round of 16 was notable -- and a marker for the kind of night his team will need in Milan on May 28: controlled, intense, ruthless when chances presented themselves.

At home to Luciano Spalletti's side in the second leg Los Blancos won 2-0, but shipped chance after chance after chance on the counter; a rival with any cutting edge would have put them out.

In the quarterfinals, Madrid decided it'd be sporting to give Wolfsburg the first half an hour of the first leg and lost 2-0. They played so sleepily that it felt like someone had pressed the "fast forward" button for Dieter Hecking's players and "super-slow motion" for Zidane's.

The 3-0 home win in the return, thrilling though the circumstances were, came when Wolfsburg crumbled. It was like a hungover David who'd left his sling at his mum's house facing Goliath and his two, hard-nosed, mates. A complete mismatch.

Away at City last week, Madrid were superior, but timid in the 0-0 draw. Slow to see that Manuel Pellegrini's side had already gone on their summer holidays, mentally: and unable to take advantage when they finally did realise.

Then the 1-0 win that got them to the final? Lacking in the chutzpah, the fanfare, the huzzah! The very magic dust which has inspired adoration and respect for Madrid around the world. A win, a deserved path to the final. But not the full shilling.

Yet they are there. Again. Meaning that they could improve fitness, sharpness and form sufficiently to win the Champions League yet again.

But, however the bookies place them, they'll start the final as gentle outsiders for anyone who's seen the 11 Madrid derbies since the 2014 Champions League final.

Under Simeone's driven, messianic reign, Atleti have won five, drawn four and lost... once. They've scored 14 times and conceded just six.

When they won 1-0 at the Bernabeu in February, Antoine Griezmann scoring with the same panache and aplomb as he showed to send Bayern Munich out on Tuesday night, it was one of only two defeats Zidane has suffered since taking over in January.

A significant Atleti achievement, but anyone who thinks Madrid can't win this, or won't be more competitive by May 28, hasn't been paying enough attention.

Leading us back to the original question. How on earth do Real keep on doing this?

You might point, immediately, to their gross spend. Madrid throw money at players, at problems and at solutions like well-wishers throw confetti at weddings. Fine, but that's not all.

Bale is a microcosm of the reason Madrid keep on making it to European finals and, more often than not, win them.

Spotting a weakness in Joe Hart's positioning AND shooting off his weaker foot, that ball was going into the roof of the net whether or not it even took a lick of shoe polish off Fernando's boot. On a moribund night, he produced something special.

Just like he did in Lisbon in 2014, in a moment which broke Simeone's exhausted team in extra-time. Just like Sergio Ramos did, to put an unstoppable header in a postage stamp space between the post and Thibaut Courtois' dive to save the tie. Just like Predrag Mijatovic did in the 1998 Champions League final to score the winner with a thigh strain against Juventus.

Just like Zidane did, scoring the goal of his life off his [slightly] weaker foot at Hampden against Bayer Leverkusen in 2002. Just like a 21-year-old Iker Casillas did after coming on to replace Cesar in that 2002 final, having delayed his appearance to cut the sleeves off his jersey, and put in a wonderful performance.

Certain players aren't just talented, expensive, or good to watch; they aren't just Galacticos. They produce; they are inextricably linked to the moments of great opportunity, of great stress, of history.

Bale proved, again, against City that he's now one of them.

Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.