Real Madrid use European heritage to pull off another Houdini act

Source ( Real Madrid X)

Jose Mourinho’s speech about ‘football heritage’ has been watched by millions. And having spent three tumultuous years at the Santiago Bernabeu (2010-13), he knows better than anyone that Real are football’s ultimate aristocrats. Over the past decade, they have also become football’s great escape artists, conjuring up victories from almost-certain defeats.

When Carlo Ancelotti coached them to the Decima (10th Champions League title) in 2013-14, Atletico, their bitter cross-town rivals, led 1-0 till deep into injury time. The goal that Sergio Ramos subsequently scored was then inked into his skin with a ’92:48’ tattoo. A deflated Atleti collapsed, and Real scored three unanswered goals in extra time.

Their 2021-22 campaign, again under Ancelotti, would have made Houdini question his skills. In the round of 16, against Paris Saint-Germain, they were 2-0 down on aggregate with just half an hour remaining in the home leg. Then, Karim Benzema scored thrice in 17 minutes, and that was that.

Against Chelsea in the last eight, Real banked a comfortable 3-1 lead at Stamford Bridge. But 75 minutes into the Bernabeu leg, Chelsea had scored three unanswered goals and were on course for the biggest of upset victories. Then, Rodrygo levelled the aggregate score, before Benzema, inevitably, smashed in the winner in extra time.

Against Pep Guardiola and mighty Manchester City, Real did well to lose only 4-3 away. But in Madrid, it was Riyad Mahrez that scored in the 73rd minute to effectively end the tie. But with Real, it’s never over. Rodrygo scored in the 90th minute, and again in the first minute of added-on time. A Benzema penalty in the 95th minute settled it.

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In the final, Liverpool had nine shots on target to Real’s two, but Vinicius Junior struck the one that mattered. Had those comebacks come against any side, they would have been praiseworthy. That Real clawed their way back from the precipice against four of European football’s heavyweights made it almost unreal.

That surreal feeling was back again on Wednesday night. After a thrilling 2-2 draw in Munich, Bayern more than held their own at the Bernabeu. And it was Alphonso Davies, the Canadian speed merchant coveted by Real, that gave the Bavarians a 68th minute lead with a thrilling run and beautifully curled finish.

Bayern and Thomas Tuchel, their coach who will depart at the end of the season, then faced a choice. Did they hold on to what they had, or did they try and hit Real on the counter and seal the tie? Tuchel opted for conservatism. Kim Min-jae, who had a shocker in the first leg, replaced Leroy Sane in the 76th minute, and nine minutes later, Harry Kane made way for Eric Choupo-Moting.

Meanwhile, Ancelotti had made a change of his own, taking off Federico Valverde and bringing on Joselu. For most of his career, Joselu was the ultimate journeyman. Having made no impression during his first stint with Real during the Mourinho years, he made his name in the Bundesliga, before spells with Stoke and Newcastle in England. Three good seasons with Alaves and an excellent one with Espanyol then earned him a move back to the Bernabeu at the age of 33.

He has scored 17 times in 46 appearances this season, but he will never score one more important than the 88th minute equaliser on Wednesday night. Manuel Neuer had been a rock for Bayern all night, but when a mishit shot from Vinicius bounced in front of him, he made a catastrophic error. Joselu, like any good poacher, was on hand to tap in the rebound.

As the game entered nine minutes of added-on time, he struck again. Initially offside, he managed to get himself behind the ball by the time Antonio Rudiger squared it across the six-yard box. But when Real play, the drama is never over. And with the game into the 103rd minute, thanks to VAR checks, Bayern thought Matthijs de Ligt had equalised. But by the time he bundled the ball into the net, the linesman had already flagged for offside against Noussair Mazraoui – he wasn’t – and the referee, instead of letting play continue, had blown his whistle.

Bayern and Tuchel were left to bemoan their fate, but deep down, the coach will know it was a disaster of his own making. Taking off two of his most potent attacking weapons allowed Real to wrest the initiative, and such is the aura around the white shirts that the climax no longer shocked you. When it comes to the top table of European football, heritage – ‘eritage’ as Mourinho famously said – certainly matters. 

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