Real Madrid holds off Atletico to reach Champions League final and keep title repeat bid alive

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In spite of all the trophies and records, it must sting on some level.

Real Madrid is already the most successful club in the history of European competition. And, therefore, in all the world’s club game. Its 11 European Cup and Champions League titles – winning the original tournament six times and its successor five – are four more than any other club. AC Milan trails with seven. Followed by Bayern Munich, Liverpool and hated arch-rival Barcelona with five apiece.

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This season, Real could become the first club to win the crown in back-to-back years in the Champions League era. Not to mention lift the big trophy a third time in four years, after titles in 2014 and 2016. The 4-2 aggregate victory over Atletico Madrid, sealed on Wednesday with a 2-1 loss at Atleti’s Vicente Calderon which wasn’t enough to overcome the 3-0 result in the first leg, saw to that.

On June 3, Real Madrid will face Juventus in the final in Cardiff as the favorite.

Real likewise remains favored to win La Liga this year, after two straight Barca titles and one for Atletico. Barcelona is even on points and controls the head-to-head, but Real has the game in hand with just two full remaining rounds of games.

In other words, Real could both defend its European title and reclaim its Spanish one, winning the toughest continental competition and the best domestic league around.

And yet.

And yet, Real probably still won’t be the most admired team in Spain even if it does the double this year.

Real’s historic repeat bid is alive and well. (Reuters)
Real’s historic repeat bid is alive and well. (Reuters)

For some reason, Barcelona remains the darling of the sport. For having reinvented the game in the final few years of the last decade, but for its dreambeat of success as well. At the start of its ongoing run, Barca won the Champions League twice in three years – in 2009 and 2011 – and claimed a La Liga title each of those three seasons.

However, in the last six seasons – counting this one – Barcelona has won the league three times and the Champions League just once. If Real finishes the job this year, holding onto its La Liga lead and beating Juventus, as it is favored to do, it will have won the league twice and claimed three European crowns in that same span.

Real Madrid has also been the more consistent side in Europe, reaching seven straight semifinals, whereas Barca has stranded in the quarterfinals three of the last four seasons.

And yet.

And yet, just as its star Cristiano Ronaldo has been considered a tad inferior to Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi, Real has been considered the second-best team in the world for all this time. Possibly even the third-best, with occasional consideration given to Bayern Munich as well – especially when it was managed by former Barca manager Pep Guardiola the last three seasons.

Somehow, the recognition as the sport’s greatest ongoing dynasty has eluded Real again and again.

Yet Wednesday’s triumph over Atletico – the poor Mattressmakers, who had also fallen to Real in the 2014 and 2016 finals – should confirm Real’s superiority over the game. Manager Zinedine Zidane, appointed in January 2016 without any senior-team experience, is in line to win a second European crown in just a season and a half in charge.

If Real’s individual talent hasn’t been quite so transcendent as Barcelona’s, it has consistently been the deeper team, as evidenced by recent league games in which it rested regulars and cruised to victories regardless. That luxury paid off in the Champions League semifinals, as Ronaldo crushed Atleti 3-0 with a hat trick in the first leg at home.

In the second leg, Atletico made a ferocious start, suggesting rather strongly that it was going to make a real contest of this.

Diego Simeone’s possessed side raced out to a 2-0 lead within 16 minutes. Atletico’s talismanic manager waved his arms, imploring his team to calm down. Then he pointed his index fingers at his head. “Calm down. Be smart. Don’t forget the game plan.” Or so he seemed to be saying.

Then he turned to the fans at the old relic of a stadium, the Vicente Calderon, which is to be replaced this summer and demolished next year, and whipped them further into a frenzy that was already fevered.

Atletico made a point of saying to its cross-town visitors before the game that it was different. That it was a working-class club that hadn’t bought its way to perpetual success – although, to be fair, Atleti are hardly paupers on the transfer market these days.

This game embodied the club’s battlesome spirit. And it gave an early spasm in the fifth minute when Koke’s toe-poke was denied at the near post by Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas in the first of a long succession of good saves. At the other end, Jan Oblak likewise prevented an early goal from a Casemiro header.

But in the 12th minute, Saul Niguez sprung up on the Koke corner and slammed the header into the net.

Three minutes later, Yannick Carrasco found Fernando Torres in the box, who was tripped by Raphael Varane. The defender was spared a red card but not a penalty. Antoine Griezmann scored to bring Atleti within a goal from an aggregate tie. Albeit barely, as he slipped on the kick and Navas couldn’t quite paw it away.

Questions over an illegal double-hit were soon asked, as Griezmann slipped onto the ball with his standing foot before striking it with the other, perhaps imparting on it the spin that helped it go in.

It was the fastest that Real had ever conceded two goals in a European game.

The Calderon went nuts, becoming the cauldron it is famous for. And, predictably, a brutal game broke out. Atleti chopped and kicked just to keep Real from easing into its lethal and all-conquering rhythm. The first half alone saw five yellow cards scattered between the two sides.

But in the 42nd minute, Isco killed off the tie by scoring for Real. Karim Benzema held the ball up in the corner and wriggled through three defenders before cutting back for Toni Kroos. His low shot was saved by Oblak, but the rebound fell kindly for Isco, who poked it into the net.

It was all over for Atletico, which would be eliminated from this tournament by Real for a fourth year in a row. The second half was action-packed, but Simeone’s side needed three goals to advance, courtesy of Real’s away goal. Atleti simply aren’t set up to go on those types of scoring benders, and Real is hardly apt to allow them.

What’s more, Navas wasn’t inclined to accommodate any more goals for the visitors, making a slew of big stops. His strong night was highlighted by a massive 67th-minute double-save on Yannick Carrasco’s shot and Kevin Gameiro’s follow-up header. And Real might have had another. Ronaldo was denied a goal from a tap-in on a deflected Luka Modric shot by the offside flag, but if he was off, it was by a razor-thin margin.

The second act would yield no more goals, though, in spite of all the chances. It did, however, produce a Biblical downpour in the final minutes as if the Soccer Gods were trying to sound their appreciation for another epic Atletico effort. Or indeed Real’s enduring brilliance.

At any rate, Real Madrid is now 90 minutes from a 12th European title. That would give them as many as the second- and third-most successful clubs in Europe combined.

It’s time to give Real its due as the preeminent club in the world of the last few years.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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