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The Three-peat: How Real Madrid Achieved a Hat Trick Champions League Trophies

The Champions League. Thirty-two teams seeded through qualification, league wins, and a variety of other much more complicated methods.

The end result though is always the same; the best of the best competing to determine who is truly the best club in Europe and arguably the world.

Even a single win is prestigious. Consider the fact that Manchester City won seven Premier League titles across 2011-2022 but failed to claim their first European trophy until 2023. 

Different leagues offer different styles of play, and thus the Champions League requires both versatility and adaptability in addition to world-class quality, especially in the modern era of heavy tactics.

It seems insane then that Real Madrid would win three Champions League trophies back-to-back-to-back between the ‘15-16 and the ‘17-18 seasons, a three-peat of wins in the toughest club competition in the world.

Zidane’s Arrival

Though they’d enjoyed success in 2014 – winning the UEFA Super Cup, the FIFA Club World Cup, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League in the same year under Carlo Ancelotti, Madrid was in a slump when compared to their success in previous decades. 

The arrival of Rafael Benítez was short-lived; he faced criticism for losses against big teams and he was ousted despite his otherwise successes in favour of a huge cog in our story.

Zinedine Zidane was back, this time to manage the first team.

Despite making it to the round of 16, Real were not expected to make it further; they’d had an easy group, and the previous losses against bigger sides rung too recent in Madridista minds to have much faith.

Huge names lined the starting XI: Keylor Navas, Raphaël Varane, Pepe, Sergio Ramos and Marcelo in defence. Toni Kroos, James Rodríguez and Luka Modrić in the midfield.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale on the wings, with Karim Benzema as a centre forward/striker. Not to mention the depth of choice on the bench.

It was a wonder they weren’t winning more already. Zidane, understandably, refused to let the squad go to waste and got to work with haste, hiring fitness coach Antonio Pintus from Lyon. 

A firm believer in fitness and conditioning, Zidane trained under Pintus during his time at Juventus in the late nineties and early two-thousands.

Juve’ had appeared in three consecutive finals themselves during his first three years at the club, winning the first and losing the following two. Zidane appeared in nearly every game across this period and credited his cardio.

Across their three Champions League winning seasons Madrid played nearly twenty-thousand minutes of football. 

Fourteen players accounted for 60% of those minutes. Some players, like Ronaldo and Kroos, racked up over eleven-thousand minutes each since the start of the ‘15-16 season. 

Most of these fourteen players also played for their country; the Euros, World Cup qualifying, two Copa Americas and who knows how many international friendlies. 

Yet there they were, playing near or over half the minutes available to them. 

Zidane took charge of the squad from the round of 16 and began to carry out his vision.

Immediate Impact

Madrid won their first leg against Roma 2-0 then did the same the in the reverse fixture, a comfortable 4-0 aggregate victory to start Zidane’s Champions League record as Madrid manager. 

When they faced Wolfsburg in the quarters, they went 2-0 down in the first leg but a Ronaldo hat-trick in the second leg sent them to the semis.

In back-and-forth affairs where no team could break through, Real narrowly beat Manchester City 1-0 over both legs to claim their place in the finals against Atlético Madrid. 

El Derbi Madrileño was coming to San Siro.

Real Madrid dominated the first half, claiming most of the possession and keeping Atlético mostly locked into their box. 

Bale took a free kick into the box, Casemiro shot and Jan Oblak cleared the ball for Real’s first attempt, then in the fifteenth minute, Real broke through as Sergio Ramos touched the ball past Oblak for their first goal.

Atlético came back fighting in the second half, earning a penalty which Fernando Torres missed and later scoring from a Juanfran cross. 

The game went to penalties, Juanfran missed as the fourth taker and Ronaldo scored to win the Champions League title for Madrid.

Zidane’s Madrid concluded their season with a twelve-game winning streak in La Liga, overcoming a twelve-point deficit and finishing one point behind Barcelona to come second in dramatic fashion.

 The streak would be a sign of things to come though as they headed into the following season.

Champions League Holders

The ‘16-17 season was Zidane truly proving his point with Real. Despite being in only his second season as a manager of a top-flight team, Zidane’s Madrid won La Liga, the Super Cup, the Club World Cup, and of course the Champions League. 

They missed Copa del Rey as they bowed out in the quarters, but it mattered little in comparison to their achievements elsewhere.

‘16-17 stands as one of the most successful campaigns in Real Madrid’s history, winning four titles alongside a La Liga-Champions League double, only achieved twice before in Madrid’s history and not since pre-1960. 

Zidane had done it in his second season with a team criticised for their failure in big moments not two years prior.

When the Champions League rolled around, Madrid came second in their group and were seeded vs. Napoli in the round of 16. They won both legs 3-1 before facing Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals. 

Though they won the first leg 2-1 at home, they faced the Bavarians at the Allianz Arena for the second and Bayern were undefeated for sixteen games at home.

Did Madrid care? Not one bit.

Lewandowski scored the first goal of the affair to bring the scoreline level – a penalty in the fifty-third minute. 

Ronaldo answered twenty-odd minutes later to bring Real ahead again, before a shot deflected off Sergio Ramos to equalise things again. Real then scored three goals in extra time in the span of seven minutes and advanced to the semis.

They then beat Atlético 4-2 over two legs and were in the finals once again, this time vs. Juventus. 

Despite Juve’ looking cool, calm and collected over their Champions League run, beating big teams in Barcelona and Porto, Madrid showed their dominance once again by winning 4-1.

The back-to-back was theirs.

An Unprecedented Triple

Real’s ‘17-18 season had rolled around, and it would be Zidane’s last (for his first tenure, he returned just a year later). Most notably, though, it would also be Ronaldo’s.

Cristiano had spent nine years at the Spanish giants since transferring from Manchester United and had won eleven trophies with them – but was about to round it off with four more.

Zidane’s Madrid again bowed out of the Copa del Rey in the quarter-finals but won the Supercopa de España, the Super Cup, the Club World Cup, and obviously, the Champions League to complete the three-peat. 

Though they came third in La Liga, a notable drop from the previous season, they would make history as the first team to ever win three consecutive European Cups/Champions League trophies twice.

And this would be their hardest run yet.

Real Madrid first faced Tottenham Hotspur and Borussia Dortmund in the group stage, alongside Cypriot team APOEL. Tottenham and Madrid advanced and thus began their hellish run.

Madrid first faced PSG in the round of 16, and they were lined with huge players – alongside a newfound Neymar. Unphased, they won the first leg 3-1 and the second 2-1 to face Juventus in the quarter-finals.

They won the first game 3-0, featuring a gorgeous overhead kick from Ronaldo. In the second game, they blew their lead as Juventus equalised 3-3, but were saved as a poorly timed tackle gave Madrid a penalty to make it 4-3 on aggregate.

Madrid then faced Bayern once again, this time in the semi-finals. They won the first game in a close-fought match that ended 2-1 and drew the second game 2-2 to advance to their third final in as many years.

Zidane’s Real Madrid faced an in-form Liverpool under the management of Jürgen Klopp. The affair was of course a war. A Benzema run is stifled by Karius, who throws a pass straight into Benzema’s leg. The ball rolls into the goal for 1-0.

Liverpool responded quickly with an attack. They earn a corner which Sadio Mané converts and within four minutes they equalise. The game is on.

But Madrid are playing for fun in this Champions League and their brilliant goals emphasised this it. Ronaldo had scored a bicycle kick against Juventus, and now it was Bale’s turn. 

Marcelo picks him out beautifully; Bale flies into the air and sends the ball into the top corner.

He makes it look effortless.

Karius is having a howler. Bale then pings a rogue ball from space which Karius deflects straight into the net. He really is having a howler.

And that’s all she wrote. The game bowed out 3-1 to Real Madrid and with it they etched their names into the history books forever. 

By season’s end, Zidane was gone. He returned for a second spell but couldn’t quite emulate the success he enjoyed the first time around, but maybe he’ll be back again; third time lucky?

Either way, their three-peat in the modern era stands to how great a team they truly were in their prime. On their day they were unplayable, and they knew it.

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