Then there were two. On Tuesday night inside the giant shiny-plated Armadillo that is the Juventus Stadium, as the lights dazzled and thrillingly loud American brat-rock split a hole in the sky, 10,000 Italians held up 10,000 plastic cards to spell the word “Cardiff” in vast shimmery letters.
This is, in all likelihood, the first time this has ever happened, and probably the last too.
A day later in Madrid as thunderstorms cleared the streets after midnight people in the city centre bars could be heard yelling and chanting and, in one side street off the Calle de Toledo, singing with a thick, beery Spanish inflection about Cardiff.
And so on to Cardiff it is then. Another high-grade, pizzazz-ridden, gas-wangling Champions League campaign has boiled down to its final pairing.
No real surprises here. The team that always reaches the final will play the team that sometimes reaches the final. Although, looking at Real Madrid and in particular Juventus one thing does stand out.
These are the most seasoned, weathered and manly of Champions League finalists: balding, grizzled and masters of a more stately game compared to the wild collisions of the Premier League.
The big question in Cardiff is can the 32-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo find space between Leonardo Bonucci (30), Giorgio Chiellini (32) and Andrea Barzagli (36) to put one past the 39-year-old Gianluigi Buffon, who made his debut for Italy when Tony Adams and Gazza were still trying to win the World Cup and who still has something unbound and compelling about him, glowering on his goal-line like a wild-eyed evangelical priest in foam gloves and lime green nylon jumper.
It was wonderful to watch that Juventus defence in Turin, men for whom to defend is a kind of muscular physical art, strung together across the pitch like a Renaissance frieze of a particularly heroic battlefield massacre.
Chiellini in particular, with his noble, beaky profile, resembles a huge, sad medieval ivory chess piece come to life and crammed into a black and white striped shirt.
They really are going to look good holding up that trophy three weeks from now.
Which is what plenty of people seem to think will happen in Cardiff.
The theory, wishful thinking or not, is that Juventus will get a grip of Madrid, reining in the fancy boys, placing a pair of fleshy hands on the lapels of that precision attack.
It is an exciting idea that overlooks one thing. Atlético Madrid tried the same tactics and indeed succeeded for 20 minutes on Wednesday night.
That they didn’t succeed in squeezing Real into submission was down to the efforts, above all, of another 30-something, a slight, ferrety, gliding presence who is surely, and without undue fanfare, the best all-round midfielder in the world these days. All hail, once again, the wonderful Luka Modric.
What a performance Modric produced at the Vicente Calderón. At the start he had to snap and snipe and wrestle as Atlético swarmed through the holes in this occasionally misshapen Real team.
By the hour mark Modric was running the game in more elegant ways, reeling out the full range of his wonderfully complete set of skills, the instant control, the ability to hold the ball in any space, to jink and pass and set the rhythms of the game around him. Over 90 minutes he had 103 touches, more than anyone else on the pitch. He had the most dribbles.
He made the most interceptions. His final heat map looks like a massive fungal omelette spread across an entire griddle pan.
Indeed watching him in the flesh in a match of such high stakes and such fury it was hard not to feel the slight oddity, the pure solipsism of suggestions that the worthy but far more limited N’Golo Kanté could be the best central midfielder in the world. Ronaldo and Gareth Bale get the all-star highlights-reel sheen.
But Modric is in many ways the one that got away for the Premier League, and who has always been a little too lightly mourned.
Not that he hasn’t always been a delightfully alluring presence, an elite footballer who even now in close-up still resembles a small boy dressed up as a witch.
Albeit his startlingly deep gravelly voice adds a weird dimension to this in post-match interviews, as though a pale, wispy woodland elf has turned up at the front door and proceeded to barge his way in, start ripping out the skirting boards and replastering the hall – “Cheers mate, seven sugars, don’t mind the radio on do you?”
But then Modric has often had to defy expectations. Overlooked by Hajduk Split because of his size, he came through at Dinamo Zagreb and first made his name in the badlands of the Bosnian League on loan at Zrinjski.
Harry Redknapp took at least a season to trust him as a central midfielder at Spurs. Even renowned bruiser Arsène Wenger is said to have dismissed him as “a lightweight”.
At Madrid he was famously named the worst big-money signing of the year by Marca after his opening season, hampered by positional confusion over his role, the assumption that this wispy little technician, floating along with the ball glued to his toe, must naturally be a playmaker or an inside forward or a No10.
And yet it was Modric who wrestled Real back into that semi-final, just as the prospect of a more bruising battle with Juve won’t faze a player whose opponents often remark on what an unexpectedly gnarly, spiky little all-rounder he is.
Above all Modric is just a beautifully mature footballer these days. And like that Juve defence, it suits him.
It can be hard to love this hurled-together Real team, seen by some as a clumsy kind of construct, pre-cooked superstars whose mistakes can go unpunished, whose incoherencies are dragged through by pure, bolt-on champions’ talent.
Even with a third Champions League title in four years in the offing it can be hard to get a clear sight of them, to judge exactly how good they’re meant to be, how much we’re supposed to love our white-shirted overlords.
They do, though, have Modric, a player so skilled and diligent, he makes every other component in that superstar collective function a little better, and who is, best of all, impossible not to love just a little bit.
Written by Barnet Ronay for The Guardian
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