The night before the second leg, Atletico Madrid’s fans descended on the team hotel. There were fireworks and passionate chanting; every drop of blood was sought as the club came to terms with the enormous challenge that lay in front. Forty-one times Real Madrid had enjoyed a three-goal advantage from the first leg in Europe, never had the finished on the losing side.
Atletico captain Gabi Fernandez reportedly had tears in his eyes as he saw the belief and pride which ran through the fans outside the hotel. However, at the end of a match which saw Real knock his team out for the fourth Champions League campaign running — an unprecedented record — there was no collective mourning. In Milan last year, after a traumatic penalty shootout defeat in the final, one wondered whether Atletico would overcome the shock. On Wednesday, though, optimism was not that difficult to find.
It was the last European match at the Vicente Calderon, Atletico’s home since 1966. The first 20 minutes suggested that a fitting farewell was possible. Manager Diego Simeone remarked, “The first 20 or 30 minutes tonight will for sure stay in the minds of everyone who was here, it was a magic night at the Calderon and will be remembered forever. We said we believed we could do it, and people thought it was mind games, but the way games can develop can be marvellous.”
Indeed, a marvellous turn of events did occur. From the first minute, Atletico were on the front foot. A brilliant save from Jan Oblak aside, the hosts created intense pressure on Real. The spectators believed and a racket surged from the stands. It grew louder when the first salvo was fired by Saul Niguez, who planted a powerful header home.
Then, the jittery Danilo — who was booked already after being chosen to play at right-back ahead of Nacho — gave away a penalty as Fernando Torres was fouled. Antoine Griezmann stepped up and there was to be no repeat of what happened in last season’s final. He scored, although it was not the most convincing of spot kicks and Keylor Navas got a hand to it. In the first leg last week, Atletico’s only shot on target was a speculative punt from 20 yards by Diego Godin towards the end of the match. But within 20 minutes on Wednesday, the hosts had produced eight shots with three of them destined for the goal.
Atletico believed. Simeone’s men had not conceded at home in their last nine Champions League games. The manager urged his players to calm down. The ferocity of their play suggested they could overwhelm Real. But, of course, it could not go on for long. Atletico needed to play the entire 90 minutes, not just a half of football.
Scrappy exchanges became the norm as Real sought to establish a semblance of control. Of course, that was not going to hurt Atletico. Simeone’s side prides itself on their ability to rough it out. There were moments where it seemed the contest may boil over but everyone kept their heads about themselves.
However, Zinedine Zidane’s Real are renowned for their ability to find the back of the net. A goal had been scored in each of their last 61 games. The visitors grew into the contest as Luka Modric and Isco kept the ball while exploiting gaps in the opposition half. However, it was a piece of individual brilliance which left a defining impact on the game.
Karim Benzema found himself surrounded by Godin, Stefan Savic and Jose Gimenez near the touchline outside the box. The French striker had seemingly nowhere to go, so he produced an otherworldly moment. It was like that famous turn of feet by Fernando Redondo at Old Trafford, but only better. None of the Atletico defenders were wise to Benzema’s genius. In one swoop, the striker went past all three of them.
Zidane smiled after the match, as he spoke about his compatriot. "We were talking after the game and I asked Karim how he got out of there. He could not tell me either.” Benzema’s moment of genius may remain a mystery but he had the good sense to set Toni Kroos up for a shot. Although it was well-blocked by Oblak, Isco bundled the rebound home and Real’s goal-scoring streak rose to 62 matches. It was over.
Atletico had chances in the second half but there was to be no repeat of the scares that threatened Real in the first period. Although the home fans jumped and chanted, the intensity of the opening exchanges was not to be replicated.
“The first 25 minutes, our rhythm was tremendous. It was an almost perfect first half, then an extraordinary move from Benzema caused us problems. But football is like this, and they have a lot of weight. We won the game today, we were close to achieving what we wanted, but it was not to be,” said Simeone in his post-match comments.
The near-perfect half, sadly for Atletico, did not produce the perfect result. A banner at the Santiago Bernabeu last week mocked the city rivals for their losses in Champions League finals to Real. “Tell me how it feels,” it said.
Atletico took a dim view of it and ran a social media campaign ahead of the second leg. Tweets suffixed with #NoLoPuedenEntender (they cannot understand) contended that it is about the club’s values, not what they win.
In his typical style, Sergio Ramos responded — “It seems people think we were all born in Beverly Hills.” Of course, Ramos’s assertion about the humble origins of his teammates was not going to be left unanswered. So, before kick-off on Wednesday, a massive banner from Atletico’s fans proclaimed, “Proud to be not like you.” It is the kind of self-assurance which comes from competing at the highest level season after season. Atletico, even in defeat, believed that they had made a statement. Yet, a victory that they seek desperately remains outside the club’s grasp.
On the third of June, it will be Real who will feature in their third European final in four seasons. Ever since the competition was rechristened as the Champions League, only four defending champions have made it as far as the final. Nobody, though, has successfully defended their title.
Zidane was part of the Juventus side which failed to accomplish that task when they were defeated by Borussia Dortmund in the 1997 final. He still looks back fondly to his days with the Italian club. “It is something special for sure. They were also very important for me, gave me everything too. But in the end you know how this is, I am with Real Madrid now, the club of my life too.”
One more victory and Zidane will have another reason to hold a dear place for the club of his life. Cardiff awaits.
Updated Date: May 11, 2017 10:41 AM