Real Madrid show how Champions League ‘magic’ makes a difference on the game’s greatest stage

For all the repetition of teams involved, the competition’s virtue is the unpredictability of picking the eventual winner

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Wednesday 13 April 2022 15:00
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<p>Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema celebrates scoring Madrid’s decisive second goal </p>

Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema celebrates scoring Madrid’s decisive second goal

If Chelsea were left wondering how exactly they’d gone out of the Champions League at the Bernabeu, their manager actually summed it up with mostly searing clarity.

“We were unlucky,” Thomas Tuchel began. “We got beaten by pure individual quality, quality of conversion, on our mistakes. Two mistakes, that you can’t have against Real Madrid. We deserved to go through.”

Although some of his words were understandably ungracious, Tuchel touched on a few truths. They were not just truths of the night, but also the Champions League as a whole. Real Madrid have proven them more than anyone else.

For one, for all of the old European Cup gravitas and prestige, it is a competition where the best team only occasionally wins. Tuchel was right there, even if he was wrong about Chelsea being unlucky.

They were sloppy by the end, and made a few bad mistakes.

The real difference was that Madrid had the players that could exploit that. They had the difference-makers, namely Luka Modric and Karim Benzema.

It was all too fitting that their moments were not just inspired, and influential, but were such signature interventions.

For the first, Madrid’s aggregate equaliser, Modric saw and somehow executed the most audacious pass. For the second, the winner, Benzema plundered yet another perfect header.

It all meant Madrid somehow got past Chelsea, because they had two players a level beyond anyone in the Chelsea squad.

Tuchel is known to have expressed this view in private. The squad Chelsea have constructed features, at best, a lot of potential. The German does not feel they have anyone that is yet a true difference-maker, “like Mohamed Salah or Kevin De Bruyne”, although it is possible that Kai Havertz could grow into that. Romelu Lukaku has been a disappointment.

That is one reason Tuchel has gone for a more structured approach, rather than a storming one. It is to make Chelsea difficult to beat, since they have to work that bit harder to win games.

The approach has mostly worked, as illustrated by the chants of the club's travelling fans here. They were defiantly insisting they would still sing about being European champions "until May".

The approach would also probably leave them finishing ahead of this Madrid over the course of a league season. Chelsea have a better overall team, and a far superior idea of football. That was why they dominated this second leg.

But this, of course, is not a league season. It is a knockout competition that has driven coaches as commanding as Pep Guardiola to the most profound frustration.

It is a competition all the more susceptible to moments of individual inspiration, because of the quality within it. Virtually complete performances can be undone in an instant, by players capable of making the difference.

Madrid have proven this more than anyone over the past decade, and this night proved it as much as any other. There was no greater explanation to it, really.

It summed up one remaining flaw in Chelsea, and one great virtue of the Champions League – and Madrid. It wasn’t really about Carlo Ancelotti’s genius, although his ability to psychologically manage teams through such nights should be acknowledged.

Madrid’s Luka Modric celebrates after his team’s aggregate victory

Madrid didn’t give in. They responded to a comeback with a comeback of their own, and that meant their stars were ready to capitalise.

It is a type of “magic” all of its own, as Ancelotti referenced.

The Bernabeu just came alive when Rodrygo slammed in Modric’s cross. The Croatian’s divine inspiration didn’t just produce a revival, if you want to continue the religious theme, given the week that it’s in. It created an expectation of salvation, and ultimately sent the entire crowd into raptures.

That only happens because of a genuine difference between clubs like this and Paris Saint-Germain, who of course suffered a similar night in the last round. It is because 70 years of European glory infuse every moment with more intensity, and amplify the atmosphere in the stands.

The Bernabeu may be under reconstruction but everyone present knows the great history it has witnessed, and it means everyone believes they will see some more – no matter the score.

That in itself influences what happens next in any given match.

"How can I explain it? The magic of this stadium helps the players, the team, to never give in,” said Ancelotti.

It should ensure that nobody is too certain about what will happen next in the competition, and that is on Wednesday night in the other quarter-final across town, as much as the semi-finals.

So many expect Manchester City to finally prove Madrid’s inferiority in the last four, but the course of this campaign should remind it won’t be routine against Atletico Madrid. Who expected Villarreal to eliminate Bayern Munich, after all? Ancelotti was all too willing to praise that, too, amid a few other pertinent points.

Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti

"Nobody can say we aren't going to win this Champions League,” the Italian said. “We showed we fight to the last. I'd like to congratulate Villarreal too. I don't think many people expected Spanish football would have two in the semi-finals, and we might have a third tomorrow.”

There is a truth to the competition within that statement, too.

As the Premier League’s financial power grows, it is ultimately better for the Champions League that it doesn’t again feature three English clubs in the semi-finals. This would have been the fourth time it happened.

The competition continues to prove, however, that wider shifts are susceptible to the most isolated moments of wonder.

That remains a real part of its magic.

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