Uefa Champions League semi-finals: Bayern must withstand Real Madrid's ferocious will to win
There is no team in football with a will to win like Real Madrid, a team which comes to the fore in the biggest Uefa Champions League games.
Time and again, football’s most successful team deliver when they need to. Even when Madrid make errors and go behind, they step up because those errors present them with a further challenge to overcome as they work through the gears towards a tie-winning climax. So effective are Madrid in the biggest cup games that there is an inevitability about what they do. And one thing they don’t do is lose.
Madrid came close to being eliminated by Juventus in the quarter-finals. They had won 3-0 in Turin, but were stunned to go down 3-0 down at home to the Italians, the last team to knock them out of the competition in 2015. Cristiano Ronaldo’s 98th-minute penalty saw them through, breaking Juventus’ hearts and leaving people questioning if Madrid’s luck in European games will ever run out.
Madrid have been fortuitous, but they create their own good fortune through waves of attacks which increase until they have won the tie.
They famously did it with a 93rd minute equaliser from Sergio Ramos in the 2014 Champions League final, before scoring a further three goals in extra time to kill off their neighbours Atletico Madrid, whom they also beat – on penalties – in the 2016 final.
They came from behind to beat Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16, killing the French side off with two goals after 83 and 86 minutes in the first leg at home.
They did it in last season’s Champions League quarter-final second leg against Bayern Munich, the team they must now overcome to reach a fourth final in five years.
The record books say that Madrid won that tie 6-3 on aggregate, yet Bayern were superior for much of the second leg in the Bernabeu and deserved their 2-1 lead. It was only Arturo Vidal’s red card on 84 minutes that shifted the tie and led to three Madrid goals in seven minutes in extra time.
At the Fifa Club World Cup played in Abu Dhabi last December, Madrid trailed the host country's representatives, Al Jazira, before eventually surging back to win. Zinedine Zidane's side would go on to win the trophy for a second year in a row.
Teams don’t know how to counter Madrid’s threat because they have no obvious style of play other than to attack and scare their opponents. Ronaldo, 33, remains the main man, but Madrid have so many different attacking options, so many world-class players. Ronaldo didn’t even start in the European Super Cup success against Manchester United at the start of this season, when Isco was the man of the match.
Madrid are now aiming to be the first team since Bayern Munich to win three European Cups in succession as the Bavarians did from 1974-76.
They are under serious pressure to perform because Barcelona, who they are always judged against, have all but wrapped up a league-and-cup double in Spain.
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Zidane has triumphed in all four of his meetings with Bayern, two as a player, two as a manager. Madrid also have a superb recent record against the newly minted German champions, knocking them out of the semi-final stage in 2014 as well as the quarter-finals a year ago. They won home and away in 2014, 5-0 on aggregate. Bayern and Madrid have met 25 times in Europe, the most time any two teams have met each other in Uefa competitions.
Ronaldo, surely football’s greatest ever big-game player, has scored 26 times in 22 games against German opponents, including nine times in six games against Bayern.
The Portuguese scored his 100th European goal in Munich last season, with Bayern manager Jupp Heynckes, who has never lost at the semi-final stage as a manager, noting, “He is always decisive. Hopefully it will not be his day on Wednesday.”
Maybe Wednesday in Munich won’t be. Ronaldo and Madrid were sublime in Turin in the first leg of this season's quarter-final, but it is the second leg Bayern need to fear. Because, when the minutes start to tick down and the pressure ramps up, Madrid are in their element.