Wednesday 12 December 2018

Ronaldo to the rescue in familiar Real script

Real Madrid 1 Juventus 3

Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates the goal which sent Real Madrid through. Photo: Reuters
Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates the goal which sent Real Madrid through. Photo: Reuters

Miguel Delaney

An entire tie can change, a whole dynamic can change, but it seems a fundamental of the Champions League won't change: Real Madrid will still win.

Even the trophy's most successful side, who have done pretty much everything you can in the competition's 63 years, had never won a game in this manner.

Real Madrid's Lucas Vazquez tries to challenge Juventus' Alex Sandro
Real Madrid's Lucas Vazquez tries to challenge Juventus' Alex Sandro

This was proper narrative drama, right to the way such a sensational three-goal Juventus comeback itself came down to the stark set-piece of one shot, delivered by one of the greatest players in history… just after one of the greatest goalkeepers ever had been sent off on what might have been his last European appearance.

That only added to the tension as Cristiano Ronaldo was made to wait for Wojciech Szczesny to get to the line, but of course it made no difference. None of it did.

A defiant Juventus had pushed Real to the very brink of what would have been statistically the most sensational comeback in Champions League history, as both sides went right to the limit, but the champions - perhaps predictably - just had more in them.

The fair question now is whether a test as traumatic as this causes some fatal damage in the core of this Real side, but the manner of Ronaldo's emphatic penalty indicates not. There can rarely have been such a single distillation of pure belief and assurance.

Juventus' Gianluigi Buffon. Photo: Reuters
Juventus' Gianluigi Buffon. Photo: Reuters

Juventus started by following Roma's lead, and doing what seems to be a fundamental requirement for recovery jobs of this scale: a fast start. This couldn't have been much quicker.

Mario Mandzukic had the ball in the net within 75 seconds, powering the ball past Keylor Navas from a pin-point Sami Khedira cross. That instantly altered the dynamic and created some doubt for the single most assured team in the competition, but in more ways than one.

It wasn't just that the nature of the contest had changed, but also that a change in defence was instantly and emphatically exposed.

With Sergio Ramos suspended, and Jesus Vallejo replacing him, Real seemed to have no answer to the power of Mandzukic in the air. They just didn't have their absent captain's command. Chaos ensued any time it looked like the ball might go there.

Juventus' Giorgio Chiellini battles for the ball with Real Madrid's Gareth Bale. Photo: Reuters
Juventus' Giorgio Chiellini battles for the ball with Real Madrid's Gareth Bale. Photo: Reuters

Real's only response was the routine that has admittedly served them so well through this series of Champions League victories.

That was to regain command when the ball was on the ground, particularly that ground in the middle of the pitch, through to the three players that have been as important to them as Cristiano Ronaldo: Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro.

Juve did seem to settle into a rhythm then eluding Real, though, as they realised they should sit and wait for opportunities to cross from the right for Mandzukic.

Different

Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates. Photo: Reuters
Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates. Photo: Reuters

That was exactly how they got the second goal, too. There was now a very different mood around the Bernabeu, something they just weren't used to.

The crowd began to turn on Gareth Bale, who was so ineffective he was taken off at half-time. It wasn't really Ronaldo's night by that point either, mind, as he had twice been flattened by Juve defenders with no foul given.

On 60 minutes, the effervescent and yet so efficient Douglas Costa played in another cross. This one was nowhere near as dangerous as Khedira's, but that didn't matter. Real were adding to their own problems. Keylor Navas somehow spilled the ball, and Blaise Matuidi was left to poke the ball in. It was quite a goal for your first in the Champions League.

Quite the contrast, too. With the tie so perfectly in the balance, maybe the best attack in the world was forced to go fully forward against the best defence in the world.

It was only too predictable, then, that a tie like this would go to unpredictable extremes.

As stoppage down went right down to the wire, Lucas Vazquez went down in the box under the challenge of Mehdi Benatia. Penalty.

This could have been Buffon's moment, except he was sent off for remonstrating. The Bernabeu actually applauded him off, as Szczesny slowly made his way on, and the wonder was whether the reaction would have been the same had they not been awarded a penalty.

There was evidently no doubt about Ronaldo stepping up, though. There is just no doubt about Real.

© Independent News Service

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