“The plan? I don’t know … to win,” Carlo Ancelotti had said, and that was what happened. Real Madrid have their first trophy of his second coming. It is a minor one, sure, taken from Spain to Saudi Arabia, but it seems unlikely to be the last. Not least because of the way they claimed the Super Cup: goals from Luka Modric and Karim Benzema inside the first hour were ultimately enough on a night where they had seemed to be easing their way to success, and then Thibaut Courtois appeared just at the moment when it looked like, actually, they might not.
The Belgian had just made a couple of saves from substitute Nico Serrano as Athletic Bilbao rebelled against a fate that seemed pre-written and looked for a lifeline in the final 15 minutes. They had been getting a little closer with every minute, “warming me up” as Courtois put it afterwards, and now it seemed they had it when Eder Militão blocked Raúl García’s header with his hand and was sent off. There were five minutes left and Athletic had a penalty. “If they had scored that we would have had seven or eight minutes of heart attacks,” the goalkeeper said.
García hit it to Courtois’s left as he went to the right, but he reacted fast and managed to save it with his left foot, sending the ball way into the air and Madrid to the title – lifted by the club captain Marcelo, sent on late to do the honours. For Athletic, this was a fourth final in a year but the third in a row they had lost. These two teams, historic clubs in Spain, where they have never been out of the first division, had not met in a final since 1958. Now Athletic handed back the Super Cup they had won against Barcelona this time 12 months ago.
Madrid had done it their way, which is many ways really and certainly includes the goalkeeper. After a semi-final in which Barcelona had more of the ball but Madrid made it through, Fede Valverde running from his area to the other in extra-time, Ancelotti had sought to decriminalise the counterattack. In a way too few managers have been prepared to do, he calmly admitted that, yes, his team does quite often play on the break. But not always and, besides, with the players and the pace they have got, why wouldn’t they?
“I’m not going to win every game on the counter and if I play possession I’m not going to either,” he said, “Let people say we play on the break: I’m delighted, because it’s not so easy, nor so simple.”
Especially if your opponents have ideas that are not so different. That might have suggested a meeting in which Athletic and Madrid cancelled each other out, waiting deep for an offensive that never arrived, hoping for the chance to break. Instead the first half of this game was open and enjoyable. Both sides were indeed prepared to run, but that was not the only mode of progression, especially in Madrid’s case. The second half was largely a non-event until that final 15 minutes, Ancelotti’s team seemingly comfortably in control until the closing minutes.
Athletic alternated between waiting and pressing high. They also began moves deep, drawing Madrid in, and there was a clarity about their attacks, willing to go for their opponents when the space was created. David Alaba twice had to slide in on Iñaki Williams: once sweeping the ball with his hand, the palm on the floor precluding it being a penalty.
And if Madrid have athletes, they also have aesthetes: almost a decade on, that midfield is still perhaps the best, Modric still defying space and time. So of course is Benzema, better even than when Ancelotti last had him. Vinicius, unusually quiet here, gives them velocity but they are happy in possession too, shown when Toni Kroos dribbled his way out of the area on nine minutes and when the move that gave them the lead started with Courtois.
Kroos and Casemiro were involved before Modric spread it right, where Rodrygo was running. Athletic backed off to their box, where the Brazilian laid it to Modric, who bent a superb shot into the corner.
Madrid, gently tightening the screw as the first half went on, had a lead which doubled at the start of the second half when Yeray Álvarez threw himself into block a Benzema shot with his arm. Benzema put the penalty away and for a while it felt a little like everyone knew this was over. Madrid seemed to be enjoying it, just playing. Which Athletic couldn’t find the space or enough of the ball to do.
And yet the danger hadn’t gone. In part perhaps because the belief that it had, Madrid dropping deeper and seemingly content just to see out time; certainly because this is Athletic, a team with limitations but no lack of pride.
Yeray headed into the side-netting. Iñigo Martínez’s free-kick hit the wall. And then Serrano had his two efforts. Saving those was simple enough for Courtois. The penalty was different, but somehow he stopped that too, the man against whom Ancelotti took the European Cup eight years ago ensuring the first of a new era with some familiar old faces.