More so than the Montreal Canadiens with the Stanley Cup or the New York Yankees with the World Series, no club is more intrinsically linked to a sports championship than Real Madrid is with the UEFA Champions League.
Since the tournament’s inception in 1955-56 when it was known as the European Cup, Real Madrid have come out on top more times than any other team. The Spanish giants won club soccer’s biggest and most prestigious prize a record 13 times. They have come to define this competition, having elevated it from its very humble beginnings to the very heights of the sporting world thanks to players such as Di Stefano, Puskas, Ronaldo, Zidane and Figo.
Real Madrid is the Champions League, and the Champions League is Real Madrid.
The Spanish outfit’s appetite to be known as the kings of Europe remains insatiable after more than six decades, as evidenced by their run through this year’s competition — a run that has been marked by incredible comebacks against Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea in earlier rounds. The latest come-from-behind win came in a dramatic 3-1 decision over Manchester City on Wednesday in the second leg of their semifinal series. With the victory, Real advanced to the final scheduled for May 28 in Paris where they will play Liverpool.
Here’s what stood out about Wednesday’s game:
A COMEBACK FOR THE AGES
It’s easy to overly romanticize a memorable sporting event when it’s barely over. The term “instant classic” gets thrown around far too liberally when the moment is still fresh in the mind, to the extent that it has nearly lost all meaning.
What’s more, Real Madrid isn’t the first team to stage an improbable come-from-behind win, and they won’t be the last. But Wednesday’s tilt at Estadio Santiago Bernabéu will go down as one of the greatest comebacks in Champions League history, a magical night that won’t soon be forgotten.
Having clinched a 35th Spanish league title on the weekend with a 4-0 win over Espanyol, Real Madrid had little time to celebrate and had to quickly turn its attention to the second leg against Manchester City. A 4-3 loss in England in last week’s first leg meant the Spaniards had to win by two clear goals in Wednesday’s return match before their hometown fans.
Los blancos stuttered in attack for over an hour, unable to ask any serious questions of Man City’s defence. Then when the visitors scored against the run of play in the 73rd minute through Riyad Mahrez, the hosts looked dead and buried.
But two goals in quick succession from second-half substitute Rodrygo right at the death — in the 90th and 91st minutes — allowed Real to tie the score at 5-5 on aggregate and force 30 minutes of extra time. The Spaniards had the momentum and were out for blood against an English opponent that suddenly looked wobbly after controlling much of the contest.
Ruben Dias’s attempt to win the ball inside his 18-yard box missed the mark, as he ended up tripping Karim Benzema. The Frenchman converted the ensuing penalty for his tournament–leading 15th goal to seal a remarkable victory for the Spanish giants.
ANCELOTTI’S CHANGES TURNED THE TIDE
Karim Benzema will garner much of the headlines for Real Madrid, which is more than understandable. He helped set up Rodrygo’s first goal with an athletic play to prevent the ball from going out, and then he held his nerve in beating Manchester City goalkeeper Ederson from the penalty spot to cap off a superlative comeback effort by the Spaniards. But while the Frenchman played a starring role, so did a number of players that Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti introduced off the bench in the second half.
The Italian tactician totally revamped his midfield trio, subbing out Toni Kroos, Luca Modric and Casemiro during a seven-minute spell that overlapped Man City’s goal. Rodrygo, Marco Asensio and the much-maligned Eduardo Camavinga came on in their place, and almost immediately turned the tide in Real’s favour. Rodrygo’s two goals forced extra time, Asensio collected an assist on the Brazilian’s stoppage time header, and Camavinga was magnificent in providing Real with defensive solidity in the centre of the park.
“I preferred to change something. Kross, Casemiro and Modric played a great game, but energy is fundamental when the match is open and there are no more tactics,” Ancelotti told Prime Video Italia after the game.
“I told the players yesterday that those who finish the game are more important than those starting and all of them [the substitutes] did well.”
A QUIET EVENINGS FROM VINICIUS JR
Real Madrid’s stunning comeback victory was even more remarkable considering it was largely achieved without much of a contribution from Vinícius Júnior. The mercurial Brazilian has been simply outstanding through most of Real’s march towards the final, scoring three goals and tallying six assists in 12 appearances.
More often than not, it was the fleet-footed 21-year-old who was the driving force behind Real, his dynamic attacking play causing plenty of problems for opposing defenders, as he conjured moments of brilliance out of absolutely nothing. In forming an effective partnership with Karim Benzema, he was part of one of the most electric and dangerous duos in world club soccer.
But the Brazilian had a quiet evening by his standards. There was the odd flash of brilliance, of course. But Man City did a good job of neutralizing him through the first 45 minutes, and then minimizing his influence during the second half and extra time before he was subbed out in the 115th minute.
Whereas he previously broke open games with his speed and deft touch on the ball, he only produced marginal moments of inspiration on Wednesday night – he was a persistent threat in the final third of the pitch, but his final product was sorely lacking – and squandered a glorious scoring chance that could have helped Real settle the game long before it went to extra time.
John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for several media outlets, including Sportsnet, CBC Sports and Sun Media. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. TFC Republic can be found here.