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In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, after a night of Champions League drama and upheaval that shook Europe, the thought spread everywhere – even, reportedly, to a despondent return flight from Rome to Spain: “Hemos entregado la Champions al Madrid.“
“We have delivered the Champions League to Real Madrid.”
Twenty-four hours later, though, on another dramatic, nail-biting night, this time at the Santiago Bernabeu, the unfathomable almost repeated itself. The newly-crowned Champions League favorites nearly capitulated themselves. Almost. Nearly. Not quite.
In the end, Real Madrid survived. But only just. And only on the back of a controversial penalty in the seventh minute of second-half stoppage time.
Juve had overcome a 3-0 first-leg deficit to level the tie 3-3 on aggregate. But in the 93rd minute, with a stunning second leg seemingly destined for extra time, Cristiano Ronaldo rose at the back post to set up Lucas Vazquez for the winner. Vazquez, according to referee Michael Oliver, was bundled over from behind by Juventus’ Medhi Benatia.
Juve players surrounded the referee for a good three minutes protesting. Gianluigi Buffon was sent off in the chaotic aftermath.
And Ronaldo, after a four-minute delay, buried the penalty with customarily clutch and confident precision. He ripped off his shirt in celebration as 90-plus minutes of tension floated up into the Madrid sky. The Bernabeu rose around him.
But as much as it exploded, it also exhaled. Because for the better part of those 90 minutes, it had been scared out of its collective mind.
It had been deathly silent from the second minute onwards. Douglas Costa burst through a seemingly non-existent Madrid midfield after 70 seconds. He slid the ball wide for Sami Khedira. Khidera clipped a wonderful cross to the back post for an unmarked Mario Mandzukic, who brought Juve within two goals on aggregate.
Madrid, defensively, was alarmingly open in the half-spaces and wide areas, and could have even conceded a second in the first 10 minutes. Gonzalo Higuain had two opportunities, one of which was a follow-up shot smothered by Keylor Navas.
Madrid had its chances as well, and wasn’t inferior. But it was sloppy and edgy, almost playing in fear of the seemingly impossible.
And when Mandzukic got his second, rising above Dani Carvajal at the far post, nerves really heightened.
Zinedine Zidane made two halftime changes, pulling off Gareth Bale and Casemiro for Vazquez and Marco Asensio. His aim, presumably, was to quell Juventus’ wide threat by restructuring his narrow midfield.
To some extent, the changes worked. But they also quelled Madrid’s own threat going forward. And then Navas completed the self-destruction with an uncharacteristic, unforced error:
Madrid, though, stabilized. With the tie level, each away team having scored three, each home team having scored none, extra time beckoned. Perhaps penalties, too. One hundred and eighty minutes of breathtaking soccer had seemingly fizzled out. Juve, in particular, was content to regroup and have a go over 30 additional minutes.
It was only fitting, though, that a remarkable quarterfinal round would be topped off by one last twist. One last moment that will have the entirety of the European soccer world talking for a dozen different reasons.
When the buzz and furor die down, and Italian complaints finally silence, Madrid will happily take its place in the semis. And it will happily wear the favorite label that Barcelona and Manchester City seemed to grant it in defeat 24 hours earlier.
But Wednesday’s near-collapse cast doubt on the assertion that was whispered on Barcelona’s team plane. And Bayern Munich, the only of four quarterfinal favorites to progress with relative ease, will have something to say about it as well.
Other Champions League results: Bayern Munich 0-0 Sevilla (2-1 on aggregate)
Already ahead on aggregate with two away goals, Bayern drew Sevilla 0-0 at the Allianz Arena on Wednesday to advance to the Champions League semifinals. There, the Bavarians could face Real Madrid, but could also face two decidedly suspect teams.
Liverpool and Roma are here for a reason and aren’t lacking in tradition, but they are lacking in current quality. At least compared to Bayern and Real Madrid, one could argue.
Bayern was more impressive than the scoreline indicated against Sevilla. The Spanish side owns one of the best away defensive records in Europe, and gummed things up for Bayern all afternoon. But manager Jupp Heynckes, who won the Champions League with the club back in 2013, set up the German giants for success.
In a nominal 4-1-4-1, Heynckes unleashed an attacking quintet of Arjen Robben, Thomas Muller, James Rodriguez, Franck Ribery and Robert Lewandowski, with the idea being the forward pressure would paper over whatever defensive liabilities the formation might leave.
And it worked to perfection. For all its quality, Sevilla didn’t have the firepower to snatch a result from Munich, and rarely did it threaten Bayern’s goal. The Bavarians mounted a few decent chances, and while they didn’t convert, that was really all they needed.
They’ll need more in the next round, for sure. But getting there was the chief objective of Wednesday, and they passed with flying colors. — Joey Gulino
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