Isco spearheads dominant midfield as Madrid hang on for UCL final berth
Real Madrid reached their third Champions League final in four years after eliminating Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon on Wednesday. After the 3-0 home win last week, the 2-1 away defeat on Wednesday was enough for the reigning champions to earn a 4-2 aggregate win.
Zinedine Zidane's side overcame an excellent start from Atletico and, through an almost total control of midfield, reacted well. A few minutes before half-time, a magic play by Karim Benzema finished by Isco gave Real Madrid the vital away goal they needed. From that point on, the visitors managed the match with plenty of ball possession and a few saves from Keylor Navas.
With this win, Real Madrid have the chance of renewing their European title, something no other club has achieved in the Champions League era.
The team reacted with impressive calm when things looked bleak. The passing, the movement and the defensive effort in midfield were outstanding. Manager Zinedine Zidane's rotation policy has worked out so far, with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos in great shape for the final weeks of the season, while Isco has assimilated his free role and now plays it to perfection. Marcelo provided width, threat and enjoyment. And, of course, Benzema's all-around game and his unforgettable play. The depth of this squad has proven instrumental to reach the final stages of both La Liga and the Champions League in an excellent position to win.
Lapses in concentration in the first 15 minutes, under Atletico's predictable pressure, could have cost the team dear. Raphael Varane suffered another defensive error in a key match, something he needs to work on if he wants to be first choice. Differently from previous matches, the bench failed to make an impact.
Manager rating out of 10
8 -- Even if the team lacked intensity and focus at the beginning of the match, their cool, competent reaction is Zidane's merit. His gameplan was clear and the side followed it with great discipline. Leaving Danilo's start aside, his only strange decision was to sub Casemiro, which left Atletico plenty of space to give Navas a couple of scares in the final minutes. The French manager has used his squad as well as anyone could have this season.
Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Keylor Navas, 8 -- Was close to save Antoine Griezmann's shot from the spot, but otherwise had a quiet first half. A handful of point-blank saves in the final 15 minutes showed he's still a great goalie of reflexes and one-on-ones.
DF Danilo, 6 -- Surprisingly chosen over Nacho for a starting spot at right-back, he stayed out of trouble for most of the match until he got his pocket picked by Yannick Carrasco in a play that could have meant Atletico's third. With a yellow early in the match, it's surprising that Atletico did not try his flank more often.
DF Raphael Varane, 6 -- Similarly to previous high-profile matches, he did well for the vast majority of the contest, but made a terrible mistake -- a silly foul to none other that Fernando Torres inside Real Madrid's box -- that left his team in a terrible position. That aside, his match was outstanding, but he must keep his concentration for all 90 minutes if he does not want Pepe to come back again next year.
DF Sergio Ramos, 8 -- Phenomenal match by the skipper. Never took any risks, anticipated well and won most aerial duels. The Sergio of the big occasions.
DF Marcelo, 8 -- One more midfielder for Real Madrid during most of the match, his participation always provided a good passing option to his teammates. A bit aloof at the beginning, he was outstanding for the remaining of the game.
MF Luka Modric, 9 -- The Croatian showed his full repertoire of dummies, body fakes, back-heel passes and ball possession. Tactically extraordinary, understood well what needed to be done and led his team's composed reaction after Atletico's second goal.
MF Casemiro, 8 -- Like some other Real Madrid players, started off slightly off, but then recovered and did extremely well not only in defence, but also distributing the ball.
MF Toni Kroos, 8 -- Lost just three passes in 90 minutes, a telling stat for another textbook match by the German midfielder. Jan Oblak prevented him from scoring after Benzema's play.
MF Isco Alarcon, 9 -- At this point he looks so comfortable surrounded by Kroos, Casemiro and Modric that it seems as though he's started all season next to them. His goal effectively finished Atletico's hopes. His performance also puts an end to any doubts regarding his ability to perform on the big stage.
FW Karim Benzema, 9 -- Mentioning that he failed to score after such a memorable play like the one he starred right before half-time would be mean-spirited. His dribble next to the line, taking three Atletico defenders out of the play, will be remembered by Real Madrid supporters in years to come. And, of course, one can't forget his all-around game that helped his team to enjoy superiority in numbers plenty of times in midfield. A terrific performance by the Frenchman.
FW Cristiano Ronaldo, 6 -- More subdued than usual, he never got the ball in Atletico's box. Hard for him to shine without proper service at this point. Selfish at the end, he should have seen Alvaro Morata free for the equaliser, but decided to have a go himself.
MF Lucas Vazquez, NR -- Replaced Casemiro after 77 minutes. Joined the team to help Danilo on the right side.
FW Marco Asensio, NR -- Replaced Benzema after 77 minutes. Did not find the right touches to make an impact.
FW Alvaro Morata, NR -- Replaced Isco after 88 minutes.
Eduardo Alvarez covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @alvarez.