How to make sense of it all? Where to begin?
The facts are Real Madrid will play their 17th European Cup final against Liverpool in Paris. Days after becoming the first coach to win titles in each of Europe’s top five leagues Carlo Ancelotti becomes the first coach to reach five European Cup finals.
How they got there is almost unfathomable. For over three hours of this tie against Manchester City Real Madrid were behind. Pep Guardiola’s side have been widely regaled as the best team in Europe over the last few seasons. But not even they could prevent the madness of the final few minutes.
They can’t explain it either.
The hosts didn’t have a shot on target in the first 89 minutes. Riyad Mahrez scored with 18 minutes left to give City a two-goal cushion and that looked insurmountable for Ancelotti’s men.
Karim Benzema had looked tired and leggy, Vini had continued to run into traffic and Luka Modrić was now off the field. Many fans even left the stadium. What happened next made fools out of all of us. As Juanito famously proclaimed in 1986, “90 minuti en el Bernabeu son molto longo”.
Eduardo Camavinga’s entrance brought energy and dynamism that was hitherto missing from Madrid’s attacks. He curled a ball towards the back post which looked too long. But Benzema managed to hook it back across and Rodrygo anticipated before anyone else to poke it in. Into added time but they still needed to score again. Surely this was one step too far?
Nobody told Rodrygo that. Dani Carvajal, whose performance was monumental on the night, burst forward and crossed towards the swarm of bodies in the box. Marco Asensio got the faintest of glances on it before Rodrygo – one of the smallest men on the pitch at 1.74 metres – hurled himself at the ball and rose to power beyond Ederson. It was complete. The stadium was almost shaking. Another remarkable remontada forced extra time, and City were understandably shell-shocked. How had this happened?
A rare lapse in judgement from Ruben Dias saw him dive in and trip Karim Benzema in the early stages of extra time, allowing the Frenchman to score another penalty in this tie.
No Panenka this time but perfect precision.
City struggled to recover.
Who could blame them? Madrid’s players celebrated with shirts declaring ‘a por la 14’. It was either a record run on the printers or the club were supremely confident of turning the tie around.
They’ve been here before. Done it countless times. Except not like this. Never had they reached the European Cup final having lost the first leg of the semi. This was ninth time lucky.
This epic crescendo was perhaps only possible because of what has gone before. The intangible aura of this club in this competition, an unquantifiable edge that drags them through the toughest moments.
Against PSG, Real were also outplayed and seemingly out of the competition until Gigi Donnarumma sent them a gift from the footballing gods. Chelsea were caught cold at Stamford Bridge but then apparently overcame that to lead 3-0 and stun the Bernabéu. It still wasn’t enough.
Rodrygo changed that game off the bench too.
City stumbled into the same scenario. There were signs in the first leg, a precursor to the pandemonium. City were blistering and were two goals to the good on three separate occasions in Manchester, but each time they were pegged back. Real Madrid are like a cat with nine lives, perennially living on the ropes, but never suffering the knockout punch. Thibaut Courtois’ save at 0-3 against Chelsea and then Ferland Mendy’s determined goal-line clearance come to mind here. Without those interventions, surely the tasks would have been impossible.
Karim Benzema has now scored ten goals in this knockout round, equalling the Champions League era record of Cristiano Ronaldo. He has reached 43 goals for the season (in as many games) which matches the best scoring seasons of Alfredo Di Stéfano and Hugo Sánchez. The Frenchman is now just one goal behind Raúl in Real Madrid’s pantheon of goalscorers.
In this remarkable run, he has scored back-to-back hat tricks against two of the richest clubs in the game, before decisive tie-settlers in consecutive rounds at the Bernabeu. 11.6% of all his Champions League goals have come in the knockout stages of this sensational season.
This eternal amphitheatre is undergoing a makeover, but the tension and the drama still play out. What was once Alfredo Di Stéfano’s domain, Cristiano’s castle, the Santiago Bernabeu is now Karim’s kingdom.
Most clubs are lucky if they see matches of this epic proportion in a decade, or ever. But the Kings of Europe have packed it all into a couple of months. This club defies description.
It is a club beyond comprehension.
Don’t try to understand it, this is Real Madrid.