Given Real Madrid’s recent run of winning three Champions League finals in a row, we were only just getting used to them not featuring in the final.
Indeed, the Spanish club haven’t just played in six of the last 22 finals – they have won six of them. They reached another one in 2022, performing heroics to progress to the final against Liverpool in Paris.
A perfect record often comes with some perfect goals, and Los Blancos have been responsible for two of the greatest goals seen in the competition this century, courtesy of Zinedine Zidane and Gareth Bale.
Both efforts – Zidane’s in 2002 and Bale’s in 2018 – have a claim for being named the best ever seen in a European final, though Mario Mandžukić might feel a little left out.
Is one definitively better than the other, though?
We’ve taken a closer look at both strikes, breaking them down into their component parts. And it’s definitely not just an excuse for us to watch both of them on a loop.
We know you won’t need a second invitation to watch both goals, so here’s Zidane…
🇫🇷 Zinedine Zidane
Real Madrid v Bayer Leverkusen
This goal, scored just before half-time, gave Real Madrid their 9th CL title. It’s on his wrong foot, remember! Ridiculous, what a goal.pic.twitter.com/mvUYTHI8Zc
— GoalScorer Challenge (@GoalscorerC) May 30, 2020
And here’s Bale…
Now, back to the breakdown:
Zidane’s goal arrives after a delightful ball around the corner from Santi Solari to free Roberto Carlos down the left. It’s the kind of pass that needs a ridiculous level of precision, the sort you might not even try if you weren’t aware of what the Brazilian was capable of.
Bale’s goal, meanwhile, begins with a less extravagant ball out to a Brazilian left-back, but there’s plenty to be said for it too.
Casemiro’s floated ball out to Marcelo is easier to execute, but it leaves the Real Madrid man in more space than his compatriot 16 years prior.
Marcelo has time to bring the ball down and survey his options, rather than being rushed into a first-time delivery, but the lack of pace on the pass also gives the Liverpool defenders time to get back and – in theory, at least – get into the perfect position to prevent a forward getting to the cross.
As good as Solari’s vision was, the ball in from Roberto Carlos is – we’re going to say it – not that great.
It’s as if he panics as Zoltán Sebescen chases back, treating the ball like a hot potato for fear of being clattered by the Hungarian defender.
It’s just a lofted ball into the space where the odds suggest a Madrid player should be approaching, but the amount of elevation would normally allow a midfielder to get back to apply pressure or, at the very least, a defender to come out and block any approach.
Similarly, Marcelo’s ball is into ‘an area’ rather than being any more precise than that, but there’s a bit more about it. He at least takes time to look across and find an area where one of Bale, Karim Benzema or Cristiano Ronaldo would be able to get on the end of the cross.
It was a case of playing the percentages, forcing a decision from the Liverpool defence. Oh, and it was on his wrong foot, too.
Yes, Zidane is fortunate to have time to prepare without Michael Ballack using Roberto Carlos’ hang time to get closer to the Frenchman, but don’t be fooled into thinking that makes anything ‘easy’ for him.
The ball hangs there for an age, for so long that Zidane can come up with the perfect execution, picture himself pulling it off, and then forget the goal he had dreamt up altogether.
The single-mindedness and focus required to generate such power with such grace and timing is special in its own right, and then you realise he’s not even left-footed.
Ask a player to do that, even a good one, and the connection won’t be nearly that clean. Ask them to do it in a Champions League final and there’s every chance they miss the ball altogether. Not Zidane, though.
Bale has less time to prepare, but that might work in his favour on this occasion. Had he been given more than a couple of seconds to weigh up his options, we might have seen him second-guess himself on whether a bicycle kick was a good idea.
Of course, a bicycle kick is always a good idea, mostly because by the time you’re in mid-air there’s no backing out and it becomes all-or-nothing.
As with Hans-Jörg Butt for Zidane’s goal, Loris Karius realises he’s got no chance of saving the effort and seems to ease off to avoid further embarrassment. But that’s only the case because the connection on both is so pure.
When Zidane joined Real Madrid, he did so as the most expensive player in world football. He already had a Ballon d’Or to his name, and in May 2002 he would have been one of the first names on the teamsheet wherever he was playing.
When Gareth Bale joined Real Madrid, he did so as the most expensive player in world football. However, that’s where the similarities ended.
Bale had only been on the pitch two minutes when he met Marcelo’s cross, having replaced Isco just after the hour mark. Did this mean he was ready to take bigger risks, knowing he had less time to make an impact? If it did, we’re grateful.
As Zidane’s strike hits the net, the first reaction we see is one of frustration from Lúcio. And that’s fair enough, seeing as the Brazilian defender must have thought his equaliser would be taking his team into the break level at 1-1.
The goal arrived on the stroke of half-time and, while it would prove to be the winner, it didn’t carry such certainty at the time. The 15-minute half-time break probably didn’t help, but there was also that element of after the Lord Mayor’s show about the opponents themselves. Having beaten Bayern Munich and Barcelona in the previous knockout rounds, Real Madrid were simply supposed to beat Leverkusen without the aid of a stunning strike.
Bale’s goal wasn’t an outright winner, of course, but it felt more like one. This might be recency bias talking, but the euphoria and disbelief felt more dramatic.
Bale’s celebration itself is pure ecstasy, but Zidane too is taken aback. And when Zidane is impressed, you know it’s good. Would it be inaccurate to say he was blown away more by Bale’s goal than by his own? We don’t think so.
So, which was best?
Still Mandžukić in 2017, sorry lads.
🇭🇷 Mario Mandžukić
Juventus v Real Madrid
Phwoar, what a goal this is. Juventus may have eventually lost 4-1, but with this equaliser Mandžukić became only the third player to score in European Cup/Champions League finals for two different teams.pic.twitter.com/DO09a1fNkG
— GoalScorer Challenge (@GoalscorerC) May 30, 2020