Real Madrid's ability to ride their luck and win sets them apart from rivals
MADRID -- Pick your landmark and then worry about how they got there. After the night Real Madrid put their supporters through, it's difficult to know where to start, but the end result is that, yet again, on they go, breaking records, toppling milestones and adding to the sense that if there is a club made for Champions League football it is the 11-time winners from the Spanish capital. Real seem to be imbued with a sense of providence that sometimes arguably carries them through as powerfully as anything out there on the pitch.
Reaching seven successive Champions League semifinals with the 4-2 second leg win (6-3 on aggregate) is one achievement to take from a tie that leaves the bitterest taste for Bayern Munich. Cristiano Ronaldo reaching 100 goals in this competition is another, and the two statistics are inextricably linked.
Neither Real nor their talisman ever give up; neither of them allow any advantage to slip, and if one thing sets them apart from their rivals, it is a sense of sheer bloody-mindedness: the marvel that when a match is there to be won, they're able to blank out the external noise and deliver.
There was certainly some disquiet inside the Bernabeu as Bayern dominated possession for long periods on Tuesday night and threatened to turn the tie on its head. Some of it was directed toward Ronaldo; supporters close to the media seats were vociferous in their advice that he should work harder during a match in which his touch was often off. Yet he responded, as he always does, with some important goals, even if he made it clear afterward that the nerves inside the ground were unwelcome.
"I only ask that [the fans] do not whistle: that they stay quiet, always," Ronaldo said. "I always give the best of me. I am sticking to positive things. The team has been fine, we played well and, obviously, I am happy for the goals."
"[Bayern] showed they are an excellent team, but Madrid is Madrid. In the first half we could have scored one or two goals, the same in the second, but we conceded goals. Madrid are used to suffering."
Madrid is Madrid. That can be flipped another way: perhaps Real find a knack of getting there in the end. Ronaldo, who plainly lacks some of his old explosiveness, is the embodiment of that: elements of his game increasingly resemble those of an old-fashioned poacher, the kind of player who, when everything else is off-key, has the ruthlessness and sheer desire to take his chances when they come.
There were no second thoughts when, clearly beyond the last defender, he drilled left-footed past Manuel Neuer to break Bayern's resistance, and there is unlikely to have been any alternative running through his mind to the tap-in that Marcelo, clean through on goal himself, selflessly provided him minutes later despite more questions of offside. It all looks so simple, yet it really is not; the ability of both Madrid and Ronaldo to shape-shift their way through the stickiest of positions is something to be applauded.
Sometimes the plaudits do come with caveats, and this was one of those nights. The returning Carlo Ancelotti, his usually amiable demeanour conspicuous by its absence, found himself on the wrong side of Real's resolve this time and was clear that the decisions of referee Viktor Kassai had been the principal reason.
"I believe [Bayern] deserved more," Ancelotti said in his postmatch news conference. "Decisions hurt us a lot. Arturo [Vidal's] was not a second yellow card, and two Cristiano goals were offside. We are not happy with that. In quarterfinals you must be a referee with more quality, or VAR [Video Assistant Referee], as there are too many mistakes."
That is the cloud hanging over any analysis of a tie that should have etched itself among the modern Champions League classics given the thrills and momentum swings it provided. "The referee eliminated us," Vidal raged.
Bayern's fate strengthens the case for VARs, which will be introduced in the Bundesliga next season before being rolled out more widely and quickly. The Bavarians were the better footballing side over the two legs; they looked the more cohesive and enterprising. Few of a Madrileno persuasion could have complained if Ancelotti had come away victorious on his old stamping ground. Yet the mind goes back to the first leg, when Bayern were profligate with 11 men, and then, after the far more justifiable dismissal of Xavi Martinez, were picked off by Ronaldo.
An uncharitable but persuasive argument could be made that despite the differing circumstances behind the officials' decisions, it was what happened before and after them that lost Bayern the tie. Their lack of decisiveness in the opposition area proved costly on the one hand; the inability to buckle down and ride their luck was fateful on the other. Bayern were brave enough, but were they streetwise enough?
Listening to a victorious Zinedine Zidane, it was clear enough that those street smarts are what ultimately hold the key.
"It goes both ways; that is football," he said, also referencing the possibility of an offside before Bayern's second goal. "More than the second yellow or the offside goals, the six goals were scored over the two games [are why] we deserved to go through in the tie. There is no luck in football: you must win, and we won both games."
It is an attitude that courses through Real Madrid from the stands to the pitch: it sometimes comes at the expense of a certain style and identity, but never without application and force of will. If Real have a charmed life, perhaps it is well-earned, and another symbol of it in this quarterfinal was Ramos.
It was the captain's 100th Champions League appearance, and when the ball ricocheted off him 13 minutes from the end of normal time, trickling over the line to send the tie to extra time, there seemed every likelihood that he would have to wait at least four months for his next one. Instead, it was Ramos who delivered for Ronaldo's second goal. Ramos and Ronaldo are the ones who get to continue their personal assaults on the record books as a result, and it's Real who, with an unparalleled knack of taking their opportunities, continue to give off an air of unassailability.
And if nobody is quite sure how Real do it, Zidane & Co. are the last to let it bother them.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.