Beautiful goals #1 – Raul, Real Madrid vs AC Milan, 2003

Famously, ever since the inaugural Champions League season in 1992/93 no team has managed to retain the trophy.

A couple of sides have come close; Juventus in 1996/97, Manchester United in 2008/09 and Barcelona in 2009/10 spring to mind, but none of them quite managed it.

A fourth were Real Madrid’s free-flowing but ultimately flawed superstars of 2002/03.

Winners of the 2002 Champions League final in Glasgow in the grand manner thanks to Zinedine Zidane’s iconic volley, Real were a club bursting with the most dazzling talent in Europe and at the peak of their first galacticos era.

While the second galactico to arrive, the imperious Zidane, floated around the pitch ostensibly from the left of midfield, the first, Luis Figo, was stationed on the right.

Galactico number three, Ronaldo, had been added as the club’s big summer signing, following his injury nightmare at Internazionale and redemption at the 2002 World Cup.

Around that elite trio, Raul drifted behind Ronaldo to devastating effect, Roberto Carlos exploded down the left flank, Michel Salgado took a more measured but no less effective approach down the right. Fernando Hierro and Ivan Helguera provided steel and style in the centre of defence in front of 22-year-old goalkeeping prodigy Iker Casillas.

Claude Makelele, meanwhile, played the role of holding midfielder so well that the position has been named after him ever since. Fernando Morientes, Steve McManaman, Flavio Conceicao, Paco Pavon, Guti and Esteban Cambiasso provided the supporting cast.

This was a side that should have gone on to win their second consecutive Champions League title, and a fourth in six seasons.

Sadly, however, in the semi-finals their defensive frailties were fatally exposed by an inspired Juventus and, despite playing sumptuous football throughout the season and claiming the Super Cup, the Intercontinental Cup and La Liga that season, manager Vicente del Bosque was summarily sacked once it was all over.

Along the way, though, their swashbuckling, devil-may-care approach, allied with a tendency to completely and inexplicably lose concentration, provided pure footballing entertainment.

Their most memorable performances came in the two legs of their Champions League quarter-final with Manchester United. Alex Ferguson’s men were ripped apart at the Bernabeu before Ronaldo delivered a hat-trick of the very highest quality at Old Trafford that brought an entire stadium to its feet.

And while those performances against United will go down as the apogee of the 2002/03 Real side, the best goal they scored came just a few weeks earlier in the same competition. That year’s eventual champions AC Milan were the opponents, in a do-or-die game for Los Blancos.

Real had struggled in the second group stage until the clash with the Rossoneri. Defeat to Milan at the San Siro had been followed by a draw at home to Lokomotiv Moscow, before a 2-1 win at home over Borussia Dortmund and a late equaliser away in the return fixture had provided hope of progressing to the knockout stages.

That outcome and the eventual meeting with Manchester United was very much in the balance, though, when Madrid took to the Bernabeu pitch against Carlo Ancelotti’s side, who had already blitzed their way to four wins and guaranteed qualification as group winners.

Del Bosque’s men started brightly and went in at half-time in front after Raul’s quick reactions and speed off the mark allowed him to seize onto a perfect Ronaldo lay-off and blast a shot past Abbiati from six yards out.

But it was 12 minutes into the second half that Real conjured the goal that combined the stunning simplicity, technical perfection and aesthetic beauty of their play at its very best.

It was made by just four players: Figo, Zidane, Roberto Carlos and Raul, and it was all over in ten gloriously joyful seconds.

It started when Raul laid the ball back to Luis Figo on the right-hand side. Figo then took a touch and, after a quick look up, pinged a perfect cross-field ball to Zidane on the opposite flank.

Zidane then delivered a piece of skill that perhaps summed up his approach to the game: languid, inventive, audacious, technically flawless and, most of all, effective.

As Roberto Carlos ran behind Zidane, the Frenchman nonchalantly took a couple of steps back before caressing the ball first-time on the half-volley into the full-back’s path in one exquisite movement, like a horse flicking out a hind leg as it limbers up for a race.

As he did so, the crowd roared in appreciation, then in anticipation, at what might be building.

Roberto Carlos scuttled forwards, pushing the Milan defence back to the edge of their penalty area, before squaring to Raul.

The captain’s first touch with his right foot was perfect, killing the ball dead and allowing him to pivot in any direction.

Two Milan players, Martin Laursen and Real legend Fernando Redondo, moved in to close him down but he deceived both of them with a twist and a deft left-foot touch. Laursen and Redondo ran past him like toddlers tricked by an entertainer’s sleight of hand.

In an instant, Raul was all alone on the edge of the Milan box, with just Abbiati to beat. Without hesitating, he hammered the ball with his right foot into the top corner. Abbiati raised his right hand apologetically and sank to his knees. Raul jogged away, arm raised to take the acclaim.

It was a goal that summed up the majesty of the galacticos project when the cogs were turning in perfect synchronisation. The most technically advanced players in the world playing with joyful abandon as a cohesive team; unstoppable when things were functioning correctly.

A late goal from Rivaldo would give Milan hope but a final flourish from Zidane and then the finishing touch from Guti gave Real a 3-1 win and almost guaranteed their progression to the quarter-finals and that famous clash with United.

Those breathtaking performances would be the last of that standard for a while at Madrid following the conclusion of the 2002/03 season. The successors to del Bosque – Carlos Queiroz, Jose Antonio Camacho, Mariano Garcia Remon, Vanderlei Luxemburgo and Juan Ramon Lopez Caro – all came and went in quick succession and were unable to replicate his success in blending the galacticos together.

It would be three years before Madrid won another La Liga title and more than a decade before they appeared again in a Champions League final. A great era, which left behind a multitude of memories, like this goal from Raul, was over.

Thanks to the second phase of the galacticos project, though, and the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, those peaks would be scaled again.

Watch highlights of the game, including Raul’s 57th minute goal, here: