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May the best team win?

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JUNE 05, 2016

AC Milan and Internazionale, the tenants of the San Siro, have won 10 UCL/European cup titles collectively since 1963 . This year, the stadium played host to another set of crosstown rivals vying for Europe’s top prize at club level. Real Madrid defeated Atletico Madrid 5-3 in penalties to lift the trophy for a record 11th time.

Let’s, however, ponder over the match’s result. A penalty shootout to decide a single game, let alone a championship, is arguably the greatest gamble in the history of sports, and every corporate head at the Bellagio or MGM Grand would tell you the same. The amount of luck involved, especially considering the goalkeeper’s positioning at the time of the kick, is tremendous. On the whole, it begins to become a guessing game. I personally hate to see big games decided by penalties. Sure, it adds to the drama and narrative, but at the same time it totally nullifies the performances of the players in the 120 minutes of gameplay before the dreaded shootout.

This year’s Champions League final was another one of those instances in which, perhaps, the lesser deserving team won the title. Real Madrid did play well. It played great football (or soccer?), but its opponents were better. Fate was cruel to Atletico as Cristiano Ronaldo, who was anonymous throughout the game, scored the winning penalty for Los Merengues. Cruel of course being a matter of perspective, as a Real Madrid fan might consider it to be Ronaldo’s greatness to score from 12 yards out.

I’ll give an example of the goals scored by both the teams to showcase the superior quality of the Rojiblancos in the match. Real Madrid drew first blood when Sergio Ramos bundled the ball into the goal from a free-kick. Toni Kroos did float in a decent ball and Gareth Bale’s header set the ball up well for Ramos. It wasn’t the most easy on the eye goal, however, but I guess a goal is a goal.

Atletico’s goal, on the other hand, was a thing of beauty. Striker Antoine Griezmann had failed to convert a penalty in the second half. The team had also struggled on the offensive end in the first half, especially with the spatial issues in the midfield considering Gabi and Augusto Fernandez’s similar play styles. The latter was subbed for Belgian winger Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco, who equalized for Atletico. The move began when Gabi flicked in a brilliant pass for Juanfran on the wing. Antoine Griezmann drew in Real Madrid defender Marcelo with a dummy run to take him away from the wing and cleared space for Juanfran to send a brilliant first-touch cross inside for Carrasco to steer it in. The Belgian then dove into the audience to kiss his girlfriend and celebrate the goal, scoring both on and off the field.

Real Madrid then defended in numbers to counter Atletico’s attacks while Atletico looked for the winning goal. The team had greater possession time, and even though it had fewer shots on goal than its rivals, it looked more threatening.

But in penalties. Juanfran, Atletico’s hero in the game, missed his penalty while the illustrious Ronaldo converted his. There’s no doubt that Juanfran had a better game than the Portuguese international superstar, but when it comes to penalties, fate rules and on this day, Lady Luck blew her kiss to Ronaldo.

Ideally, UEFA should make the final a two-legged affair. Bayern Munich was unlucky to lose out to Chelsea on penalties in 2012, and this year’s outcome again highlights the issue. In the NBA, you have a seven-game series in the playoffs. The MLB has a five-game series, and then a subsequent seven-game series. These drawn-out systems make it hard for the worse teams to go all the way. While the Champions League has a double-legged format for the knockout stages, the final’s single game style means that the unexpected becomes routine.

As a sports fan, it’s hard to watch the better team lose. Now, sure, it is right that the team that performs the best on the given game day should win, but in the last 5 years, I’ve seen the inferior team win the Champions League. UEFA needs to make the final as such that it is not left to chance. Penalty shootouts are an integral part of the game, but truly, the lesser they decide crucial matches, the better.

Soccer just isn’t a goalkeeper-v-goal scorer affair.

Contact Devang Prasad at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @DevangPrasad.

JUNE 15, 2016

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