On January 5, Diego Lopez was keeping goal for Sevilla against Osasuna, making just his seventh appearance of a season which had not gone to plan. Raphael Varane had played just nine games for Real Madrid and was nothing more than a reliable substitute and a bright hope for the future, while Luka Modric had failed to make an impact five months into his €30m move from Tottenham Hostpur and just been voted the worst signing of the season in La Liga by readers of Spain’s biggest selling newspaper, Marca.
Things were not going well for the man on the Real Madrid bench either. Jose Mourinho’s side were 16 points behind a then unbeaten Barcelona in the League table, facing difficult tasks to qualify for the next rounds of the Copa del Rey and the Champions League owing to a defeat to Celta Vigo in the first leg of the Last 16 of the former and an unenviable draw with Manchester United in the latter. And all this was without mentioning the rift the Portuguese Coach had created with Madrid fans by dropping club captain and national icon Iker Casilas two weeks previously – before the 2-3 defeat to Malaga – which only added to his long-running dispute with the Press.
Two months later, the landscape looks very different for Madrid and those four characters, who all played crucial roles in the club qualifying for the quarter-finals of the Champions League over Manchester United on Tuesday night.
Varane was both a rock and a calming influence in the Madrid defence. He made crucial tackles on Luis Nani and then Danny Welbeck in the first half, conceded no fouls throughout the 90 minutes and was confident and useful on the ball, both in his own box and when playing higher up the pitch.
Lopez did nothing outstanding but was solid and beat away every decent chance United threw at him. Although he could have held on to Robin van Persie’s initial shot late in the first half, he reacted brilliantly to get up and deny Welbeck on the rebound. He then made further saves from Van Persie in the second half, denying the Dutchman in a one-on-one situation and then stopping a header. It will be fascinating to see if Lopez can maintain his place in the side when Casillas, who is not on the best of terms with Mourinho and was not having the finest of seasons before he fractured his finger towards the end of January, returns to full fitness in three weeks’ time.
Although Varane and Lopez’s contributions should not be understated, it was decisions taken by officials and Coaches that would decide and define the game. Referee Cuneyt Çakir sent Nani off on 56 minutes for a high challenge on Alvaro Arbeloa, a decision which was fiercely protested by United and Sir Alex Ferguson.
While you cannot control which decisions will go in your favour or against you, it is how you react to them that counts. Mourinho withdrew Arbeloa, far from Madrid’s greatest attacking threat and on a yellow card, and brought on Modric. Ferguson, incandescent with rage with the sending off, did nothing, allowing Madrid, who needed two goals to go through, to lay siege to United’s penalty area.
The defence was doing enough to repel Madrid’s threat until Modric worked his magic. The Croatian brought some thought to Madrid’s intense attack and began dictating the play. He played a one-two with Ramos on the edge of the area which created space for himself and then fired an unstoppable shot in off the post to equalize.
Three minutes later his pass unlocked a free Gonzalo Higuain, whose cross was tapped in by Cristiano Ronaldo to put Madrid ahead in the tie.
In 13 minutes United had gone from being in full control of the tie to being left needing two goals in 20 minutes with a man less, and although they never gave up, Madrid’s passage to the quarter-finals was never in doubt.
Los Blancos can now look forward to the draw for the last eight of the Champions League knowing that they have as good a chance as anyone in making it to Wembley on May 25, which would add to the Copa del Rey Final already etched into their calendar for that month.
For all that has gone on this season, it could yet end well for four men who, just two months ago, were not enjoying the happiest of starts to 2013.