Benzema goals, Bayern errors put Real Madrid in Champions League final
MADRID -- Three snap thoughts from the Bernabeu as Real Madrid make it back to the Champions League final for the fourth time in five years with a 2-2 draw in Tuesday's Champions League semifinal, second leg, at home to Bayern Munich for a 4-3 aggregate win.
1. Real Madrid do enough yet again
Karim Benzema was the surprise hero on another extremely dramatic night at the Bernabeu as Real Madrid just did enough to edge out Bayern Munich and keep their bid for a third consecutive Champions League alive. A pulsating game flowed back and forth as Bayern right-back Joshua Kimmich again opened the scoring before the recalled Benzema scored twice to put Madrid in control of the tie, only for James Rodriguez to net against his former side to put things on edge again.
For a second consecutive year, Bayern left the Bernabeu -- and the competition -- cursing their luck and refereeing decisions. But over the two legs Madrid were just the better, and especially the more streetwise side.
"We defend the throne, we win the glory" said the banner behind the Bernabeu's south goal before kick-off, but it was the visitors who began looking much the more composed, with Franck Ribery testing stand-in right-back Lucas Vazquez. The home crowd was feeling much less confident just three minutes in, when dodgy defending at the back allowed Bayern full-back Kimmich in to score just as had last week in Germany.
Madrid did not take long to reply. Marcelo produced a pearl of a cross from the left and recalled centre-forward Benzema lost marker David Alaba and confidently headed home.
Neither team eased up on the tempo. Bayern continued to find it very easy to get at Madrid's defence, with first Ribery and then Mats Hummels allowed to carry the ball for way too long, but Keylor Navas saved weak shots to deny Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski. The second rebound fell for ex-Madrid playmaker James but on the stretch, the Colombia international fired over the bar from three yards out.
Madrid had their chances too. Cristiano Ronaldo was denied at his near post by Bayern goalkeeper Sven Ulreich and Sergio Ramos headed the subsequent corner into the side-netting. Half-time brought a welcome breather for both sides though Bayern were left complaining they deserved a penalty for a Marcelo handball just before the whistle.
The second half could not have begun in worse fashion for Bayern. Ulreich slipped while trying to decide how to deal with a back-pass, even though no Real player was close enough to apply pressure. The ball ran clear of the Bayern goalkeeper and Benzema accepted the gift to fire into an empty net with just 18 seconds played. The visitors had to attack even more from that point, with David Alaba superbly denied by Navas and Lewandowski not given a very plausible penalty claim against Sergio Ramos.
At the other end, Ronaldo had two close-range chances inside 30 seconds but could take neither. Those misses soon seemed more important when his former teammate, James, fired home the rebound from a tight angle through Navas after his own first shot was blocked. Revitalised, the visitors surged again and Lewandowski coaxed two brilliant saves from Navas in quick succession.
Substitute Gareth Bale could have sealed it but failed to convert, which left five minutes of added time agony, but Zidane's side held on, with Ramos and Raphael Varane outstanding, to make it to another final in Kiev in three weeks' time.
2. Redemption for Benzema
Benzema's return to the Madrid XI was greeted with scepticism by many among the Bernabeu pundits and some fans whistled and booed when his name was read out before the game. The exiled France international had not scored in open play since mid-February and had looked generally woefully out of sorts in recent weeks.
Benzema hadn't started either of Madrid's two most recent games in the competition and was realistically only active on Tuesday night due to an injury to Isco. But he took advantage to give his best display of the season. The early goal clearly gave him confidence: He looked like the roving, powerful No. 9 of big games past, linking the play cleverly, drawing defenders out of position and opening up space for strike partner Ronaldo.
Benzema is a lot more than a foil for his star teammate, however. The gift from Ulreich early in the second half was his 55th goal in the European Cup, making him the sixth-highest scorer in the competition's history. He's not been Madrid's key goalscorer at any time but over his career, he's been a scorer of key goals. He would do so again on Tuesday night when Real needed him most.
3. Tired, defeated Bayern need a rebuild
After the first leg in Munich, Bayern players past and present had lamented their inability to finish their chances and that narrative is sure to continue now as Lewandowski and Muller continued where they left off in the first leg, missing chance after chance.
Madrid's Navas was regularly in action between the posts but, aside from fine saves to deny David Alaba and Corentin Tolisso, was not tested consistently enough. Ribery was the visitors' most dangerous threat in both legs but did most of his best work in creating chances for teammates that were then missed. Their second goal on Tuesday came from this season's new edition, playmaker James, and was mostly all his own work.
Lewandowski is still remembered for his four goals against Madrid for Borussia Dortmund but that was five long years ago. Muller has still never scored against Los Blancos -- and a feature of both their Bayern careers is now losing Champions League semifinals to La Liga opponents -- while Barcelona and Atletico Madrid have also eliminated the Bavarians.
It is true that individual errors in both legs by Rafinha and Ulreich really killed Bayern's chances. But a summer shake-up seems inevitable, with incoming coach Niko Kovac to be provided with some newer, younger attacking options. This Bayern attack appears to have come to the end of the road.
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