Kroos exits Real Madrid a legend, passing the baton to Bellingham


LONDON — It was apt that Toni Kroos’ last significant contribution in a Real Madrid shirt helped create another moment of history for the undisputed kings of the Champions League. A perfectly delivered corner, headed into the net by Dani Carvajal, and Madrid were on their way to a record 15th European Cup win by defeating Borussia Dortmund 2-0 at Wembley.

Twelve minutes later, Kroos was substituted by coach Carlo Ancelotti — who was about to extend his own record to five Champions Leagues wins as a coach — to a standing ovation from the Real fans in London, with his place in the history books assured.

“It could be worse,” Kroos told CBS. “That was the plan [to win the Champions League in his last game for Madrid], even though it’s difficult to plan this. It seems in these games we are unable to lose.

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“Amazing. Six titles in the Champions League is crazy, something I never thought I’d achieve.”

Kroos’ six Champions League wins — one with Bayern Munich and five with Madrid — puts him in rarified air. Nobody has won more, ever. Real great Paco Gento and Kroos’ modern-day teammates Luka Modric, Nacho Fernandez and Carvajal are the only players in history to lift the European Cup six times, but this win was the final chapter for Kroos, with the 34-year-old announcing recently that he will retire from football after representing Germany at Euro 2024.

“It’s what he wanted, retiring at the top, and he’s done it,” Real president Florentino Perez told TVE. “He’s a player who’ll be one of the great legends of Real Madrid, without doubt.”

Just as Kroos was cradling the trophy for the sixth time, Jude Bellingham was getting acquainted with it for the first. At 20, it is likely to be the first of many for the Madrid and England midfielder and he may yet eclipse Kroos’ record of six wins.

“I can’t put it into words, the best night of my life,” Bellingham said after the game.

Bellingham has every chance of winning time and time again for Real. He is playing for the serial winners of the Champions League and he has already established himself as a crucial element of Ancelotti’s side since his €103 million transfer from Dortmund last summer. He literally has the world at his feet at the Santiago Bernabeu. But the big challenge for Bellingham now is to assume the mantle that is being vacated by Kroos. Can he become the heartbeat of the Real team and be the guy who delivers when his side needs it the most?

Neither Kroos nor Bellingham were at their absolute best against Dortmund. In fact, they were both chasing yellow shadows at times as Edin Terzic’s team surprised the LaLiga champions with their aggressive, committed pressing game, especially in the first half.

Dortmund were dominant for at least an hour and Real’s big performers struggled to make an impact. But great players are always able to dig deeper than the rest — that’s what elevates them to the pinnacle of the game — and Kroos did just that when he stepped up to take the corner which led to Carvajal’s headed goal, the full-back’s first Champions League tally since November 2015. Kroos has forged a reputation for being arguably the most accurate passer in football, with the ability to deliver the ball with inch-perfect precision, and he did just that for Carvajal, who glanced the ball into the net by connecting at the near post.

What a way to sign off, by creating the chance that makes the crucial breakthrough in a Champions League final. By doing so, Kroos lifted the pressure on everyone in a white shirt, and maybe nobody more so than Bellingham.

It is easy to forget how young Bellingham is. He is not 21 until the end of June, but he has already become an England regular and made his name in the Bundesliga and now LaLiga. In his first season with Madrid, he has scored an incredible 23 goals in 42 appearances and registered 13 assists — the 13th being the pass which teed up Vinícius Júnior make it 2-0 against Dortmund on Saturday. Because Bellingham has enjoyed such a stellar season, all eyes were on him to be the decisive player in this final, but he didn’t have that performance in his locker after a long, tough season.

But he is now a Champions League winner and, with Kroos vacating the stage, Bellingham will now be expected to do what Kroos did in this game.

He certainly has the ability, and he has the temperament too, but Kroos is such a legend at Real that even Bellingham will have to step up and take his game to another level. It is not about an apprentice emulating the master because Bellingham is no apprentice, but Kroos is still somebody he must aspire to match. To do that, Bellingham has to become a more central figure rather than allowing himself to drift out wide or too high up the pitch. But that tactical discipline will come, and it may start to come next season when Kylian Mbappé arrives at the Bernabeu.

Mbappe, who is expected to become a Real player once his Paris Saint-Germain contract expires this month, will take the spotlight and automatically become Real’s biggest star. But Bellingham is still capable of being the player that makes Real tick and the one who can create the chances for Mbappe to score so many goals and shoot Real to even more Champions Leagues.

Kroos has handed down the baton and Bellingham is ready to take it on. And don’t bet against him breaking Kroos’ record of six Champions Leagues if he stays at Madrid.



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