Real Madrid Did It Again

Real Madrid is famous for its Champions League comebacks—specifically, for the sneakiest sort, where over the course of a knockout tie an opponent will have broken and mangled Madrid’s body and tossed it into a ditch and filled that ditch with a heaping mound of dirt and stomped that mound flat and then, finally wiping the sweat from its brow and collapsing to its knees in weariness and jubilation, turned back to the would-be grave only to find an unharmed Madrid standing tall, white jersey spotless, with a smirk and blazing eyes that by themselves communicate the inevitability of what is going to happen next. With Real Madrid, you’re always safest expecting the unexpected.

Wednesday’s semifinal between Real and Bayern Munich featured yet another legendary Blanco comeback, one a little different than the classic variety though no less thrilling. If the typical Madrid comeback involves the club tapping into its unique relationship with luck, its ability to escape a fate it may otherwise deserve, Wednesday’s was about the forces of justice correcting for a moment of misfortune that had temporarily put the more deserving Madrid at risk of elimination. This time, the expected thing, the thing the action on the pitch seemed to be building toward, was that Real would win, and it was the form of the expected manifesting itself that was unexpected. No matter. What’s even safer than expecting the unexpected is expecting that this Real Madrid team, one way or another, will come out on top.

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It feels like everything there is to say about this team has already been said over the course of its unreal run of success in this tournament for more than a decade now. The Champions League is for mentality monsters, and there is no beast as big as the one that sleeps under the Bernabeu. After an even-ish first half, which Real mostly controlled except for a handful of Bayern counters that the visitors spurned with poor decision-making and execution, the hosts were supreme for the duration of the second half. Nevertheless, it was Bayern that found the opening goal, benefitting from a trademark Harry Kane game-breaking pass and an unexpected right-footed wallop from Alphonso Davies to put the German team ahead on the day and in the tie in the 68th minute, feeding the hosts a bit of their own medicine in the form of a surprise, fortune-blessed goal. But Real never panicked, never evinced any real concern that they might lose, and instead only tightened the vice it’d already put Bayern in. Vinícius, the most relentless player in the world today, kept squeezing, and the players and fans inside the Bernabeu kept believing, and eventually Real did what it does.

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That Real wasn’t already leading by a goal or two by the time Bayern scored was largely down to goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, who added another one to his career-long collection of legendary performances, playing the immovable object to Vinícius’s unstoppable force. It was a shame, then, when in the 88th minute Neuer fumbled a fairly routine save from an admittedly cracking Vini shot, which gifted substitute striker Joselu a tap in to level the tie. At that point the question wasn’t who would win the game, but rather how long it would take Real to win it. Sure enough, it only took three more minutes (plus another two minutes for VAR to correct the bad offside call) for the Merengues to find the match- and tie-winner, once again from Joselu. Cue the delirious celebrations, made no less joyous by the fact that everyone, no doubt even the Bayern players themselves, knew it was coming.

Vini was incredible all night. So was Toni Kroos, as per usual. (At this point it seems like the winner of the next Ballon d’Or will be one of three Madridistas—either Vinícius, Kroos, or Jude Bellingham—likely depending on who scores in the final they will almost certainly win and which one of their national teams performs better in the coming summer tournaments.) But everybody’s a star at Real Madrid, and this time it was Joselu (who joined the club over the summer on the cheap because his previous team had gotten relegated from La Liga the season before) who used the white shirt to help his minor talent shine brighter than you’d ever imagine possible.

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Real believes in itself. It trusts its players’ abilities and in the rewards that accrue from keeping those abilities unshackled. Its coach keeps on winning and yet never tries to aggrandize his own, crucial role in achieving those victories, nor does the club go around preaching about how its method of success is the only true and morally pure way to play the game. Real is the good guy. All of that has been evident for a while now, even if it’s taken some (like myself!) a long time to accept it. And even if you reject it, it doesn’t matter. If Real Madrid—especially this Real Madrid, which will now play its sixth Champions League final in the past 11 seasons—is anything, it is inevitable. Victory is coming. You might as well enjoy it with them, because there is plenty to cherish.

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