Real Madrid ride out Atletico storm to reach another Champions League final
MADRID -- Three quick thoughts from Atletico Madrid's 2-1 Champions League semifinal second-leg win over Real Madrid on Wednesday at the Vicente Calderon, which sees Los Blancos move on to the final by an aggregate score of 4-2.
1. Madrid ride out storm to make another final
It has been a year of unbelievable comebacks in the Champions League, and Atletico Madrid came close to pulling off the most amazing of all at a rocking Vicente Calderon on Wednesday, but defending champions Real Madrid rode out the storm to progress to their third Champions League final in four years.
Diego Simeone's home side were incredible during an emotion-packed opening quarter-hour, and they steamrolled a dazed-looking Madrid team who began the game with what had seemed an unassailable 3-0 advantage from the first leg last week.
Antoine Griezmann and Koke had already worried visiting goalkeeper Keylor Navas before the latter's pinpoint corner was bullet-headed to the net by Saul Niguez on 12 minutes. Almost immediately, Fernando Torres was felled in the penalty area by Raphael Varane, and Griezmann's spot kick made it past Navas even though the Frenchman slipped as he made contact.
Down 2-0 on the night, Madrid were really in trouble, although Atletico had to pause for a breather after what had been an incredible opening. The game next entered a niggly phase with two players from each side booked as referee Cuneyt Cakir struggled to maintain control.
Los Blancos emerged from the struggle with their composure once more, and they soon got a crucial away goal. Karim Benzema wriggled away from three Atletico defenders along the end line, and pulled back for Toni Kroos, whose shot was saved by Jan Oblak, but Isco was on the spot to scoop in the rebound with 42 minutes played.
Atletico came out in the second half having to do it all again. They almost had a third when Yannick Carrasco easily beat Danilo to a long ball, but Navas saved the shot, then made a miraculous stop from substitute Kevin Gameiro's follow-up header.
At the other end, Cristiano Ronaldo saw a goal ruled out for offside, and Benzema had a decent penalty claim, but still Atletico kept pushing, and Gameiro really should have added another after some super work from fellow replacement Angel Correa.
That was that, though, and Madrid are into the June 3 decider against Juventus in Cardiff. They remain on course to be the first team to defend the Champions League trophy in its modern format. But they got a huge scare on their last ever visit to the Calderon.
2. Isco, Benzema provide quality when needed
Madrid were reeling midway through the first half on Wednesday. Stand-in right-back Danilo had already been booked for a needless foul, Casemiro was a shaky presence in deep midfield and talisman Ronaldo was only noticed when he was elbowed in the back of the head by Diego Godin.
Amid the chaos there were Blancos players who kept their heads. Luka Modric was a calming presence on the ball in the centre. Both Benzema and Isco had also shown some nice touches, dropping deeper to link the play and try to hold possession, before they were both involved in the night's crucial moment.
The Frenchman's composure and ability were fantastic as he squeezed his way along the end line, and he also had the vision to see the pass to Kroos, with Isco then exactly in the right spot to cleverly finish the rebound. Madrid have now scored in 61 consecutive games, a testament to their squad's sheer depth of attacking solutions.
Isco might not have started on the night had Gareth Bale not been injured (again), but his worth was huge. Tactically manager Zinedine Zidane gets another player in the centre of the pitch, and the 25-year-old's skill and touch in tight areas helped avoid the Atletico press and keep the ball moving. The little Andalusian also got involved physically to help his side when the game was at its most intense.
The next few weeks are sure to see a lot of talk about Bale racing back to fitness for the final in his home city of Cardiff, but it is difficult to see how Zidane can find a place in this XI for the Welshman.
3. Atletico salvage some pride
This was the last European night at the old Vicente Calderon, and even though Atletico ended it out of the Champions League, their performance made sure the game will be remembered with pride long after the stadium is gone.
The Rojiblanco family had been building a mood of defiance ever since last Tuesday's first leg at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, with some fans claiming offence at a pregame banner shown by Madrid fans asking "How did it feel?" to have lost the 2014 and 2016 Champions League finals to their neighbours. The Calderon faithful shot back on Wednesday with "Proud to not be like you" written across one side of the old concrete bowl.
Amid the incredible noise, Diego Simeone's men showed an almost demonic energy from the off. The roars were even louder when veteran Torres beat Madrid captain Sergio Ramos to the first header, although the referee called play back for a foul. Atletico players seemed to be everywhere, and within the first five minutes they had showed more fight and spirit than in the entire 90 last week.
But it was impossible to keep up such intensity for the entire game, even with Simeone regularly jumping off the bench and pumping his arms in the air to rouse the crowd. And when it went into a lull before half-time, Madrid were able to take advantage and get the crucial away goal.
"Atletico until death," sang the stadium through the second half, even when the heavens opened late on, and the home fans could not be but proud of the effort their team put in right until the end. Four straight years of losing to the same opposition in this competition would be tough for anyone to take, never mind when it's against your closest neighbours and fiercest rivals. But the nature of Wednesday's performance means that this exit should not be as painful as those that came before.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan