Real Madrid find a new way to produce another unthinkable Champions League comeback

Real Madrid 2-1 Bayern Munich (4-3 on agg): Joselu’s late double sent the 14-time winners through to a Champions League final against Borussia Dortmund at Wembley

Miguel Delaney
at the Santiago Bernabeu
Thursday 09 May 2024 06:59 BST
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Real Madrid, somehow, but inevitably, find a new way to win. It was starting to feel what it must be like to play themselves. And yet, of course, even they came through that. Bayern Munich had subjected the Spanish champions to the sort of experience Real Madrid have done to so many. They dug in, they frustrated, they scored a crucial goal out of nothing amid favourable refereeing decisions.

Real Madrid then threw it all in, including a supposed stand-in. For someone that was supposed to be a mere stop-gap for Kylian Mbappe, Joselu is instead a new folk hero. He scored in the 88th and 92nd minutes to somehow turn the most typical 1-0 defeat into a victory that was atypical for a team that wins more than any other.

Joselu celebrates after his second goal is awarded
Joselu celebrates after his second goal is awarded (REUTERS)

It was like this time they had defied the power of narrative itself, such is the way these games go. They are the narrative. They are the story of the modern Champions League. They will now surely be eyeing up a club 15th and a personal fifth for Carlo Ancelotti. Borussia Dortmund are going to have to come up with something more than Bayern Munich, but Thomas Tuchel had seemed to get it right.

Joselu stunned Bayern, who were minutes from Wembley
Joselu stunned Bayern, who were minutes from Wembley (Reuters)

This was the oddity of the game. Even his most bizarre decisions, such as taking off Harry Kane and Jamal Musiala at 1-0 up, didn’t really matter because Madrid rendered it irrelevant. They seem to render any opposing force irrelevant.

On that, what must Kane be thinking? What must Tuchel be thinking? He will fume after that controversial late offside call that went against Bayern.

What was Manuel Neuer thinking? He’d had his best game for years only to be responsible for the error that could define this season and more.

He had up until then decided how the game had gone.

Although these teams have played each other so often, and offer up so many trappings of European football we’re so familiar with, there was something very different about this game.

It wasn’t just that Bayern weren’t in red, although you could have presumed they were the team in white. Real Madrid took the initiative in a way you don’t usually see in Europe. They were setting up so many chances, but also setting up a narrative – just not the one anyone was familiar with.

Tuchel brought off Kane when Bayern were in front
Tuchel brought off Kane when Bayern were in front (Reuters)

It was almost straight away. Vinicius was just boring so many holes through the Bayern Munich defence. That created the space for Rodrygo to cause constant danger. In one moment, the ball seemed to sit up for a strike, only for Matthijs de Ligt to just whack the ball away. it didn’t matter where. They just had to get rid, given the ball had spent so much time around Bayern’s goal.

There, however, Neuer was imperious. Although Madrid had tried to game Bayern with a throw-in, catching out so many of their players with a throw further up the pitch when they thought the ball was in play, the goalkeeper was one player who was supremely alert. Neuer got the crucial touch to Vinicius Junior’s low drive to put it onto the post, and then immediately got up to block Rodrygo’s shot. There was so much more of that, as Madrid just kept coming.

Neuer had denied Madrid with a series of stunning stops
Neuer had denied Madrid with a series of stunning stops (Reuters)

Neuer was supreme – but not impregnable.

The most anguished, and the closest, was another Vinicius-Rodrygo double act. Vinicius again just made the left side of the pitch his own while setting his own pace, before playing another inviting ball across the box. Rodrygo, however, could only steer it wide.

As Madrid themselves know better than anyone, you can’t miss that many chances in a major Champions League game without gradually creating more and more risk.

There had been danger from Bayern, too.

Kane had almost put Leroy Sane and Serge Gnabry through on a few occasions. That threat was always there, but they couldn’t quite get the timing right. One threaded Kane ball required a thundering run back from Nacho.

It seemed like Bayern had denied that crucial outlet when Gnabry had to go off injured. Alphonso Davies came on, a supreme player of course, but one who is usually much more forceful running from far deeper back.

Bayern were being pushed back that far. The big Rodrygo chance seemed the most extreme. It wasn’t quite that a goal was coming, though, but more that something was about to happen.

Kane this time had the opening. He played a superb lofted pass for Davies to run onto. The Canadian still had so much to do, with Antonio Rudiger in front of him. He did it spectacularly. Davies just strode forward and then stepped to the side, before swerving a soaring shot into the far corner.

Davies silenced the Bernabeau and had Bayern close to the final
Davies silenced the Bernabeau and had Bayern close to the final (Getty Images)

Bayern erupted. It seemed to finally be going wrong for Real Madrid in this competition, everything they’ve wrought coming back to them. You could even see it in how Nacho’s goal was disallowed. It was only the prelude to something greater, something even more improbable.

As the match ticked into the 88th minute, a ball was struck at Neuer. It is usually the sort of effort he easily collects, but there always seems a risk to how he gathers the ball. Neuer this time spilled it like another German goalkeeper in Oliver Kahn in the 2002 World Cup final. There was Joselu, rather than Ronaldo.

Joselu’s double sparked wild scenes at full-time
Joselu’s double sparked wild scenes at full-time (Reuters)

Real Madrid may now celebrate him like the great Brazilian. He may go one further and win a Champions League. He won this game. On 92 minutes, as Rudiger turned the ball over, Joselu turned it in.

Madrid had somehow done it again, in a way not even they had managed before.

That’s how Madrid win, they sing in this stadium. Not like this. It of course makes it all the grander. The same old finalists, in a new way.

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