Jose Mourinho has repeatedly stressed the importance of bringing the Champions League back to the Bernabeu at the end of a season that has seen his Real Madrid trail Barcelona by some distance throughout in La Liga. The comfort with which Los Blancos eased to victory over Galatasaray in their quarter-final first leg last night suggests they have hit their stride in the competition at just the right time.
Aiming for a record 24th semi-final appearance in Europe’s premier club tournament, Madrid made the perfect start against the Turkish outfit when Mesut Ozil’s perfectly-weighted through ball found Cristiano Ronaldo and the Portuguese talisman effortlessly chipped the ball over goalkeeper Fernando Muslera with just nine minutes on the clock.
Karim Benzema’s second for Madrid, after he cleverly controlled Michael Essien’s cross, and substitute Gonzalo Higuain’s third, his first in the Champions League this season, provided a timely reminder of the attacking talent Mourinho has at his disposal, and left Galatasaray with an all but impossible task in the return leg in Istanbul on April 9.
Madrid are seeking a record 10th European crown and their first since Zinedine Zidane’s memorable volley sank Bayer Leverkusen in Glasgow in 2002. The confidence with which they dispatched the Turkish champions provided further evidence that Mourinho’s men look likely to run Barca closer in the Champions League than they have managed in a lacklustre Primera campaign.
Once again, Xabi Alonso ran the game from midfield, his penetrating free-kick finding the unmarked Higuain to nod in Los Blancos’ third. The former Liverpool playmaker will miss the second leg, however, as will defender Sergio Ramos, after both men received their second yellow card in the competition in the closing stages of last night’s game.
Despite the emphatic scoreline, there was almost a sense of anti-climax about Madrid’s victory. Rightly, Galatasaray had decided that the best form of defence was attack against a Madrid side boasting so much goalscoring talent. Yet Madrid failed to exploit to the full the wide open spaces the Turks presented them with and squandered a hatful of chances.
Mourinho understandably counselled caution after the match, even though an away goal for his side in Istanbul would leave Galatasaray needing to score five.
“I have seen so many incredible things that nothing can surprise me. Istanbul is a really difficult place to play, they will fight really hard against us,” the Portuguese insisted. “They will do everything to do something historic and I know [Galatasaray Coach] Fatih Terim will try. The history of football is full of miracles. Why can’t they dream? I know this is not over and I will try to convince my players of that.”
Barcelona brushed aside Milan so easily in the Last 16 to show that such comebacks are possible, but the Turks are not Barca. The Catalans look set to overcome the disappointment of a stoppage-time equaliser from Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday and, barring a Turkish miracle, Madrid will join them in the semi-finals.
Reaching the next stage would mean a seventh Champions League semi-final for Mourinho, equalling Sir Alex Ferguson’s record. Mourinho has already been there with Porto, Chelsea Inter and Madrid before and, while the Portuguese would be proud to reach Ferguson’s milestone, a 10th European Cup is his and Madrid’s holy grail.