Sport Champions League

Sunday 20 May 2018

Real survive nervy night to keep dream alive

Real Madrid 2 Bayern Munich 2 (Real Madrid win 4-3 on agg)

Real Madrid celebrate after the match. Photo: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters
Real Madrid celebrate after the match. Photo: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

Paul Hayward

They'll never forget this night at the Bernabeu, not for a good while.

Not because Real Madrid played spectacularly well; not even for a result that keeps alive their hopes of a third successive Champions League triumph.

No, they'll remember the way Bayern Munich made them suffer; the sensation of pure, screeching tension; of dark, knotted dread.

The way the seconds ticked away like minutes, the minutes like hours, the way every cross felt like a bomb.

The way that, through gritted teeth and aching limbs, their team fought their way to a 16th Champions League final, their third in a row - a feat last achieved by Juventus in 1989.

The bare facts were these: Karim Benzema's two goals, his first in open play since February, saw Zinedine Zidane's side through on aggregate.

Karim Benzema celebrates after scoring Real Madrid’s second goal against Bayern Munich at the Bernabeu. Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
Karim Benzema celebrates after scoring Real Madrid’s second goal against Bayern Munich at the Bernabeu. Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

They'll play Liverpool or Roma in Kiev on May 26; they've won their last six finals; they're going for an unprecedented 13th European Cup win.

It was a night did justice to a game of high drama, high stakes and occasionally high farce.

At full-time, as Real substitutes flooded the pitch and the roof briefly threatened to lift, perhaps the most powerful image of all was the sight of Bayern goalkeeper Sven Ulreich slumped on the edge of his penalty area, numb and distraught.

It was his terrible error at the very start of the second half that had given Real a decisive fourth goal in the tie.

Real Madrid's Gareth Bale and Bayern's Joshua Kimmich challenge for the ball. Photo: Francisco Seco/AP Photo
Real Madrid's Gareth Bale and Bayern's Joshua Kimmich challenge for the ball. Photo: Francisco Seco/AP Photo

And here, ultimately, was the difference over two legs: Real's incalculable resolve in defending their own penalty area, and Bayern's costly lapses in defending theirs.

Bayern fans will point in mitigation to their injury list: Manuel Neuer, Arjen Robben, Jerome Boateng, Kingsley Coman, Arturo Vidal, Javi Martinez on the day of the game.

Yet the counterpoint was that they had this tie in their grasp: for half an hour in Munich last week, and briefly again here.

They created chances and blew them. Their wait for a sixth European crown will have to wait again.

Consolation

Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo in action with Bayern Munich's Javi Martinez. Photo: Paul Hanna/Reuters
Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo in action with Bayern Munich's Javi Martinez. Photo: Paul Hanna/Reuters

But though it will be of little consolation to them, it was their electrifying approach over 180 minutes that defined what will be remembered as an electrifying spectacle.

A breathless first half-hour, until the game settled down into a more familiar pattern, was spellbinding: football that defied you to take your eyes off it, that dared you to take a sneaky peek at your phone.

Real's frailties on their right flank, with Lucas Vazquez and Luka Modric as their flimsy defensive line, were allowing Franck Ribery and David Alaba to run motorways through them.

Equally, however, such was the ferocity of Bayern's high press, and the danger of Marco Asensio and Cristiano Ronaldo on the break, that Bayern, too, felt just a couple of decent passes away from being carved open. It was thrilling, throttling, if some way short of elite.

Joshua Kimmich's third-minute goal for Bayern, thrashing in the rebound after Corentin Tolisso's cross was only half-cleared, fired the starting pistol.

Real hit back immediately, Marcelo crossing for Benzema to head in at the back post after a delightful 28-pass move.

But Bayern were the dominant side in that opening period, even if their dozens of little bursts, promising openings and threatening crosses added up to very little in the way of clear chances.

Rodriguez, slicing the ball over from five yards with barely any time to react, had the best of them.

Again, perhaps Bayern were guilty of being all verse and no chorus. But equally you had to tip the hat to Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, who defended their 18-yard box like mothers guarding their young: staying touch-tight, winning their duels, snuffing out the danger that their team-mates were all too easily allowing to develop.

Then, just 20 seconds into the second half, came the moment that will bring Ulreich out in a cold sweat for days, perhaps even years.

As Real pressed Bayern into their own corner, Corentin Tolisso's back-pass was a touch light, but still required just a firm boot to clear.

Instead, for reasons even Ulreich will struggle to explain, he slid in to smother the ball, realised his error, and lost his footing as he tried to get back to his feet.

A scarcely believing Benzema tucked into an empty net and, for Bayern, it seemed the curse of the Bernabeu had struck again.

Except Bayern had come too far, suffered too much, to give it away as ignominiously as that.

After a short pause to recover their composure, they came again and Keylor Navas made a good save from Alaba.

Zidane waited a surprisingly long time before making his first change, and, by the time Gareth Bale appeared on the left wing, Bayern were level, Rodriguez sliding the ball under Navas after his initial shot had been blocked.

Magnificent

And so the scene was set for the magnificent denouement, with Bayern hastily but methodically hurling themselves in pursuit of a winning goal, Real keeping up the pressure, defiantly refusing to retreat to the edge of their own box, trusting in their legs and their brawn.

Yet despite the predicted fusillade of crosses, the desperate tackles and towering headers, Bayern failed to create a single clear-cut chance in those closing minutes.

The final will pit the third-placed team in La Liga against the third-placed team in the Premier League, or the third-placed team in Serie A (Roma).

Which serves as a reminder not just of the flaws of all three teams, but the unique demands of Champions League football, a competition that works different muscle groups to the relentless march of a domestic league campaign.

Cup football is, essentially, about turning it on when it matters, and there are few sides in world football - actually, make that none - as intimately attuned as Real to the rhythms and emotions of this competition.

Whoever they face in Kiev, they will start the final as favourites, and their unstinting rearguard here goes a long way to explaining why. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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