There has been nothing routine about Real Madrid’s 2017-18 season. Nothing predictable. It has rarely, if ever, been comforting. It has almost always, if not always, been disappointing. It has been frustrating and exasperating, its small successes always fleeting.
But over 180 minutes in Madrid and Paris, in the competition whose modern era Real has come to own, normalcy returned. Progression to the Champions League quarterfinals, in the end, arrived with ease. PSG, without Neymar, was no match for the king.
Los Blancos, in their traditional all-white kits, and in customary machine-like fashion, disposed of Europe’s nouveau riche. They won the second leg 2-1, and the tie 5-2 on aggregate, never troubled after two late goals at the Santiago Bernabeu back in February.
They were composed on Tuesday at the Parc des Princes. They were pragmatic. And a goal from the man who’s scored more than anybody else in Champions League history all but sealed their victory shortly after halftime:
It's his competition.
Ronaldo ties Ruud van Nistelrooy's record by scoring in his 9th straight Champions League game. pic.twitter.com/LQBsNQig1i
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) March 6, 2018
Cristiano Ronaldo’s 51st-minute header, which left PSG needing three just to send the game to extra time, was emblematic of Real’s performance. Marco Asensio, deployed by manager Zinedine Zidane as one of two defensive wingers, was the 10th of 10 men behind the ball when he stripped Dani Alves of possession in the defensive half. He drove forward with intent, then maintained composure, and finally injected the game with the touch of class it needed.
He sprung Lucas Vazquez, his wide midfield bookend who was equally brilliant all evening. Vazquez’s 80-yard sprint had taken him from the right side of his own half to the left of his attacking penalty area. Vazquez teed up Ronaldo, and the quarterfinals were within touching distance.
Madrid didn’t quite look like the team that had claimed three of the past four Champions League trophies, in part because it was without the two leading members of its midfield braintrust, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric. But it didn’t have to be last year’s team. It didn’t have to be the 2016 team. All it had to do was bottle up the Parisians.
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Madrid used the two-goal lead from the first leg to its advantage. Rather than cut off PSG’s attacking supply in midfield, it dared PSG’s supporting actors – thrust into lead roles by the Neymar injury – to perform in tight spaces. And they simply couldn’t. Casemiro and Mateo Kovacic were disciplined for Madrid in the middle of the park. The back four were as solid as ever.
PSG, without its stricken catalyst, was stable but uninventive. It was able to hold possession, and able to shift play into the final third, but unable to do much when it got there. That, precisely, was Madrid’s plan, or rather the result of one that had been executed to perfection.
Edinson Cavani equalized on the night in the 71st minute, giving PSG a lifeline, and reigniting the ultras and their flares whose smoke had wafted over the pitch. They had come for a party, and had done their part to instigate it. Two more goals would have extended it, and kept PSG’s season alive.
But Casemiro killed off both party and game nine minutes later. Madrid was too seasoned, too businesslike. And oh yeah, it still has as much talent as anybody in Europe. It has been to seven consecutive Champions League semifinals, and made a strong statement about its designs on No. 8.
PSG, meanwhile, would love one semifinal appearance. Its lucrative project, fueled and funded by Qatar’s government, has endured yet another year of failure in Europe. Success and power, for now, remain in the hands of the established aristocrats.
Other Champions League scores
Liverpool drew 0-0 with Porto, and advanced to the quarterfinals 5-0 on aggregate.
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