This is how Real win
At 2-0 down on aggregate with 30 minutes to go and Kylian Mbappé running the show, most considered a comeback impossible. In step Karim Benzema and a roaring crowd to raise Real from the ashes and to victory in Europe, once again.
Wednesday 9th March, 11pm local time. The chant of “Así gana el Madrid!” resonated in the centre of the Spanish capital loud and clear. It translates to “This is how [Real] Madrid win”, and few songs would be more accurate when talking about the Spanish giants’ incredible victory. Before talking about the epic, however, let us rewind to three weeks ago…
After defeat at the hands of a Kylian Mbappé wonder goal on the 94th minute in the first leg, the feeling at Real Madrid was one of huge disappointment after a dreadful game of football from the team, who did not register a single shot on target, plenty of responsibility placed on the manager. Ancelotti’s defensive, slow-paced plan had worked in La Liga, but left Real exposed in Paris. Along came a little relief at “only” losing 1-0 when it could have been much worse, if not for a tremendous performance from Courtois. It seemed like the competition’s all-time greats were handing over their dominance to new dynasties, their glory days long gone by.
Between the ties, Real had three La Liga games to clear their heads and strengthen their top spot in the domestic competition. Lacklustre victories against Alavés and Rayo Vallecano were followed by a bigger test in hosting Real Sociedad last Saturday. Off to a bad start for the whites, the visitors went 0-1 up after 10 minutes of play. Then, something clicked: spurred by the crowd, Madrid put in a shift, generating periods of brilliant football. They scored two stunners via Camavinga and Modric within 2 minutes of each other. Later in the game, Benzema and Asensio replicated this feat: 4-1 in front of a roaring crowd, which seemed ready for the big test.
In the days prior to the game, Spanish press and fans evoked the spirit of comebacks of old, the idea of “scenic panic” at the Bernabéu, as world champion Jorge Valdano described it. Derby County (4-1 in Derby, 5-1 in Madrid), Anderlecht (3-1, 6-1), Borussia M’gladbach (5-1, 4-0) and Inter (3-1, 5-1) all fell at the hands of Real during the 70s and 80s after holding big leads from the first leg. More recently, so did Wolfsburg (2-0, 3-0), destroyed by Cristiano Ronaldo. Madrid fans knew a big effort from them was needed to lift the team’s spirits, and they responded: all the way to the stadium, the team’s bus was surrounded by flares, white and purple scarves and thousands of fans showing their faith chanting “Sí se puede” [Yes, we can].
And for the first 15 minutes, it seemed like they could: high pressing and a couple of dazzling runs from Vinícius good initial signs which quickly dissipated when PSG started to take hold of the game. As the French dominated possession and Madrid began to look overrun once again, the stadium grew more and more silent, the visiting fans quite the opposite. An initial goal from Mbappé, ruled out for offside, was followed by a good effort from Benzema brilliantly saved by Donnarumma, and after a careless dispossession from Carvajal, Neymar sent Mbappé on his way to the goal. Strong finish at the keeper’s post, 0-1, six minutes before halftime.
And then, as if in an act of defiance, the crowd started to believe again. After halftime, Mbappé had an unbelievable finish disallowed before Ancelotti made two subs which would eventually change the game: Rodrygo and Camavinga in, Asensio and Kroos out. The two youngsters enabled Real to up their pace and improve their press. In doing so, Benzema forced Donnarumma to give the ball away to Vinícius, who returned to the Frenchman to slot it home. 1-1, 61 minutes of play.
As the Santiago Bernabéu grew louder and more confident, PSG’s star trio of Neymar, Messi and Mbappé started to fade. It would be another (allegedly) dwindling star, 36-year-old (!) Luka Modric, who dominated play. The Croat recovered possession, run past 3 PSG players and, surrounded, played a delightful ball through to Vinicius. “Vini” kept possession and returned it to the veteran midfielder, who again played a fantastic pass to Benzema to put it past Donnarumma and make it 2-1, sending the crowd into madness.
But it wouldn’t stop there. PSG would only be able to string a single pass, before their second was intercepted by Rodrygo, who once again sent Vinicius into space. A very poor clearance from Marquinhos fell to Karim Benzema (who else?), who hit it first-time with the outside of his boot into the back of the net, completing a comeback and a hat-trick. The whole stadium erupted: the bench in full ran down the side towards Benzema, Marcelo had to quite literally pull Vinicius out from a sea of limbs coming from the crowd, Alaba and Militao were holding stewards’ chairs in the air… Who could blame them, though? Real Madrid had managed to come back from 2-0 down in less than 20 minutes, against heavily favoured, star-studded PSG.
For the remaining 15 minutes, the Spanish side kept their cool, and could have added one or two more goals. In the final play of the game, Messi sent a free kick just over the top, and as it sighed relief, the Bernabéu celebrated the feat. It was more than just a game, also a hymn to the side’s history in the competition.
Because, to Real, when the anthem plays and the starry ball starts rolling, logic does not mean a thing. They are the perennial European champions, no matter who faces them. On Wednesday, they did it from 2-0 down with half an hour to go, guided by players 34 and 36 years of age, and against possibly the best front three ever assembled. Against all odds, but that’s how they like it. After all, así gana el Madrid.
Image Credit: The Athletic