Real Madrid have suffered at home, but they've learned how to win anyway
Last week, not long after his and his team's mammoth achievement of a third consecutive win in Munich against Bayern, Sergio Ramos used his social media account to post: "Saber sufrir. Saber ganar. Saber ser Real Madrid. Quedan 90"
He showed his forearm to the camera lens, covered wrist to elbow in elaborate tattoos that are hard to make sense of unless you are in Sergio's inner-inner circle.
However his words not only had direct, simple translations -- they were bang on the money.
"Know how to suffer. Know how to win. Know how to be Real Madrid. There are 90 minutes left."
Los Blancos kind of own this tournament.
Twelve wins since their first in 1956, five ahead of nearest pursuers AC Milan and seven better than bitter rivals Barcelona. Madrid's spurt of three dramatic trophy lifts since 2014 has been the reaction of an aristocrat to the baying mob yelling "Vive la revolution" and demanding equality.
A clean pair of heels.
So, kudos to them. Not an iota of their glory or credit needs to be stripped away from those ultra-intense final victories over Atletico Madrid in 2014 and 2016 (4-1 after extra time, then 1-1 and penalties) and Juventus (4-1) last year simply because there were moments of blood, sweat and tears in order to reach them. But there were. Particularly at home.
If you don't follow Madrid closely, you'd be forgiven for looking at their coach (Zinedine Zidane), their key striker (Cristiano Ronaldo), their Rolls-Royce midfielders (Toni Kroos and Luka Modric) and then their muscular, athletic defenders (Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos) and thinking: "Class acts, ultratalented ... no wonder they've powered their way to what seems like an unending stream of European glory!"
But that genuinely tells about a third of the story.
Ahead of Bayern's latest visit to the Santiago Bernabeu -- that seething, bouncing, ambitious melting pot of haughty, loyal, entitled and passionate Madrid fans -- there is hope for Jupp Heynckes and his German champions, however thin a shaft of light that hope emits. And don't make the mistake of reckoning this idea is based on Juve winning 3-1 here in the last round. Not a bit of it.
This era of success has Zidane as a strain running right through it -- either as assistant coach or head honcho.
But when it was still Carlo Ancelotti in charge and Zidane helping Paul Clement back him up, this trend for Madrid to suffer the most remarkable tension, drama and sometimes farce at their home stadium took hold.
For example, a comfortable away win in Gelsenkirchen against Schalke 04 in the 2015 round of 16 would equate to a comfortable, patrician passage in the second leg at home. No danger, right?
Not even close. An early goal conceded to Christian Fuchs (before his title win at Leicester), then a 3-2 lead on the night re-established only for goals by Leroy Sane and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar to win the match 4-3 and leave Roberto Di Matteo's Bundesliga side a goal away from moving on! Having lost 2-0 at home!
The quarterfinal was a brutal Madrid derby, 0-0 at the Calderon, and Atleti were only eliminated with about 70 seconds left at the Bernabeu. Victory, the semifinal reached, bragging rights -- but bad for the heart rate, sweaty for the palms and, overall, the beginnings of this recent pattern.
You'd need a heart of stone not to feel for the fans.
The Madrid faithful mob the team buses, flares are the order of the day, throats are ripped raw by songs, and the approach to the stadium, while law-abiding, is spine-tingling and iconic. They really believe that they have a superpower; not Ronaldo, but their apparent ability to primevally roar Los Blancos past any rival -- in any circumstances.
The semifinal of that year proved the contrary. Drawing 1-1 with Juventus in the second leg, despite the advantage of being at home, and they were out -- 3-2 on aggregate. There would be no Clasico final against Barcelona in Berlin that year.
Once Zidane took over, Ramos' "Know how to suffer ... know how to be Real Madrid," if anything, took on even more intense meaning.
They won the trophy in each of Zidane's first two seasons in charge, an utterly exceptional achievement -- historic. But how many times would Sir Alex Ferguson have used the phrase "Squeaky bum time" if he'd have been involved? Plenty.
Read the dry pages of the history books and they'll tell you that Madrid hammered Roma 4-0 in stomping through the round of 16 in 2016. That wasn't the full story, though.
Those Madrid fans who soaked up the first-leg 2-0 win in the Italian capital and then attended at the Bernabeu must have started to think, "This could be worse than the Schalke night," as Luciano Spalletti's side ripped through Zidane's midfield and defence time after time. Mohamed Salah, twice, Edin Dzeko and Kostas Manolas each had one-v-one opportunities to beat Keylor Navas and not only fluffed their lines but missed the target from only a few meters out with time to finish clinically.
I remember saying a silent prayer for Madrid fans who suffer from anxiety, ulcers or pessimism that night.
The only game Zidane's Madrid side lost that season after he took charge was in Germany, against Wolfsburg. That made the quarterfinal second leg -- although an exceptionally one-sided 3-0 win was enough for the eventual winners to march on -- tense, drawn out and always a single away goal from putting Wolfsburg into the semifinal.
Ditto the match that qualified Zidane for his fifth Champions League final as a player or coach.
Manchester City were flat, sloppy and turgid, but only an own goal (I still like to argue that it should be credited to Gareth Bale, not Fernando) edged Los Blancos ahead on aggregate. "Know how to suffer? Know how to be Madrid?" Well that night, Ramos and co learned the meaning of his favourite phrase. Tense and ragged, nails bitten right until the 92nd minute of a contest in which the winners should have been out of sight by a hatful of goals, but were within a hairsbreadth of elimination.
Finals are finals, so the heart-freezing drama of winning in Milan on penalties against Atleti isn't the same thing. Finals are for winning, and they did.
But last season again proved the wisdom of Ramos' philosophy. Victory over Borussia Dortmund, and a place atop their group with the favourable draw that earns, were thrown away to an 88th-minute equaliser from Marco Reus.
Madrid turned in a comfortable, powerful, even dominant away win to Bayern Munich in the quarterfinal. Two away goals, Javi Martinez unable to repel them in the second leg having been sent off in the first -- as easy as falling off a log, right?
Well, fall off they did.
Trailing 2-1 at home, Real emerged winners in extra time against 10-man Bayern. But Casemiro was incredibly fortunate not to be sent off. And wasn't Ronaldo offside for his second and third goals? Of the second goal there was, objectively, no doubt whatsoever, but it stood. You play the whistle; don't waste too many crocodile tears for Bayern, who get those calls in their favour too.
And on marched Zidane's Madrid.
Not only to victory in that year's Cardiff final but marching on to this season, when they are within at least dreaming, perhaps touching, distance of a third straight win -- something not achieved since Bayern did so more than 40 years ago. Yet against Paris Saint-Germain at the Bernabeu in the round of 16 they were outplayed, then stretched terribly until the 83rd minute, when a 1-1 draw and potential elimination suddenly became 3-1 and a springboard victory for total domination in Paris.
Don't get me wrong, please. This is not snide carping. Victory is victory. Possessing the brilliance to win some European matches out of sight and the gritty, angry determination to claw your way out of Houdini dilemmas on other occasions is what helps give this competition both its glamour and its status as the greatest club competition anywhere in sport.
Then came the quarterfinals against Juventus. A sound thrashing in Madrid from the Italian champions, who'd been down and out after their own three-goal humiliation in Turin.
The penalty. The red card. Gianluigi Buffon's histrionics. And Ronaldo's sweet, ice-cold, hitman penalty winner.
It's what they do. In itself, it's an art. Soar to the heights, particularly if that entails having fought back from the depths. Would their fans really have it any other way?
Perhaps the only way forward, should Madrid see off Bayern on Tuesday and then use Kiev to win their third straight Champions League, is not just for every member of Zidane's squad -- Zidane included -- to have "Saber sufrir. Saber ganar. Saber ser Real Madrid. Quedan 90" tattooed on his right forearm to celebrate victory. But, in fact, for every single player who signs for Los Blancos from now onward to be required to singe his skin with this motto that seems to represent everything about what separates Madrid from every single other European club. Ever.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.