Sunday, December 10, 2023

Real Madrid, bloody hell

Picture the scene. We are at the Stade de France, under the lights. It is the Champions League final on May 28th.

Liverpool are leading Real Madrid 3-0 thanks to a hat-trick from Mo Salah and Sadio Mane has just hit the bar after getting away with elbowing substitute Dani Ceballos. There are six seconds of normal time remaining. The Liverpool fans are singing their heads off, already celebrating their seventh win in this competition.

The fools. The goddam fools. Have they not been watching the Champions League this season? Carlo Ancelotti raises a quizzical eyebrow on the sideline. That’s it. That’s the signal. The Spaniards begin to execute the plan which has worked perfectly so far. Lull the opposition into the falsest sense of security there ever was, then BAM!

3-1: Modric plays in Vinicius Junior who smashes a low shot beyond Alisson.

Liverpool fans stop singing for a second but there are only two and a half of the four minutes of injury time left, there’s no way Real Madrid could score twice in such a short amount of time against a team that has a very solid defensive record.

3-2: Virgil van Dijk is beaten in the air by Karim Benzema whose header squirts along the line and then in.

They couldn’t, could they? There are literally nano-seconds remaining.

3-3: Thibaut Courtois launches it towards the Liverpool box. From nowhere Gareth Bale, still wearing his golf glove, hurtles through the air, twisting like a giant cat pouncing on its prey from deep grass, to do an overhead scissors kick volley on the half-volley that will have lads on podcasts spend weeks on the debate ‘What is a true volley?’ which hits the top corner so hard the ball gets stuck in the net.

I think we all know what happens after that, don’t we? And it’s not an open top bus on Merseyside.

I don’t really believe in the idea of fate, that something is predestined, but holy cow Real Madrid are testing me this season in the Champions League. What happened last night against Man City, after what they’ve already done against PSG and Chelsea was nothing short of extraordinary.

A clearance off the line and that Courtois save from Jack Grealish prevented the goal which would have sealed the game for City, but even then I didn’t expect them to let in two goals in injury time to send the game into extra-time. Not least because we’d got to the 90th minute and Real hadn’t had a shot on target. Then Rodrygo nipped in ahead of Ruben Dias to poke one home, before the Brazilian got between both centre-halves to power home the header to make it level (was there the slightest flick off Asensio’s head too?)

He could have had a hat-trick only for an Ederson save, while at the other end Foden had a clear sight of goal from a quick free kick only to blast over. In the early moments of extra-time Dias fouled Benzema, penalty Real Madrid and there was just no way the Frenchman was going to miss. 3-1. Genuinely amazing, and City looked rattled beyond belief as they tried to find the goal they needed.

For all the precision and tactical exactitude of Pep Guardiola’s football, when it came to the crunch and they needed a late goal, they turned into a Route One team, lumping the ball forward to their no centre-forward – meat and drink for Real Madrid’s defenders for the most part. I mean, that’s objectively very, very funny. I don’t discount that as a way to put some pressure on the opposition, but it’s basically the antithesis of Guardiola’s football and everything he’s ever said or done when it comes to his teams’ styles down the years.

I thought the 3 minutes at the end was odd after all the time-wasting, especially when the ref blew up after 2’50 but ultimately the ref didn’t clear the ball off the line, didn’t make a save from Grealish, or fail to mark Rodrygo twice and then concede a lazy penalty in about 8 minutes of actual playing time. This season’s Champions League ‘failure’ from Pep wasn’t about over-thinking, it was about his team simply not doing the basics, but then when you lose twice in one season to Sp*rs, you get what you deserve as far as I’m concerned.

What’s the big takeaway though? Mainly just that football is incredible at times. This is a game that Man City should have won, but whatever it is about this Real Madrid side they found a way to dig it out. It helps when you have some very talented footballers, but when you get to that point of a match and it looks bleak, you have to dig into some reserves of character and belief too. We can’t measure those things, there’s no xC stat we can look at, but it’s a demonstration that football is a game of fine, fine margins, even when you think it’s one way, it can quickly turn the other way. That ability to keep going, when all looks lost, is much underrated.

Also, the idea that the lack of the away goals rule might hurt the spectacle of two-legged semi-finals is surely in the bin? Football always should be about ‘who scores most wins’, where you score them ought to be irrelevant and I’m glad it is. Real Madrid 6-5 Man City. Drama. Excitement. What more do you want?

I said yesterday I thought City would be too strong for the Spanish champions, and they were … until they weren’t. There’s a lesson there for Liverpool ahead of this final, because you can’t put anything past this Real Madrid side.

Till tomorrow.

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