Thomas Tuchel had demanded a “fantastic script” and boy did he get one, another epic and implausible story unfolding. Just not quite as he had hoped; Real Madrid had rewritten the ending, the way they so often seem to do. “The magic of the Bernabéu,” Carlo Ancelotti called it. It would have been barely believable, except that they had seen it somewhere before. The last time they were here, in fact.
Go back a month. Scribble out where it says PSG and write Chelsea instead. Just don’t touch the mentions of Madrid, the club who have made the impossible feel inevitable. It doesn’t matter if it’s absurd, how bad things are – how bad they are – when that final scene comes, there they are: still standing, rubble all round. Just as you imagined, just as they like it.
Asked how much they had suffered, Ancelotti replied: “A lot, a lot.” In the dressing room, Dani Carvajal said: “It’s better this way.” You don’t know how they’ll do it but you know somehow they’ll do it. The Bernabéu knew at least, and that’s part of it, like some self-fulfilling prophecy, each story feeding the next. Casemiro had expressed that the day before: “This club lives to win impossible games, games where no one believes.” Luka Modric called it “another incredible night”, the key word another: he recalled epic evenings against Juventus, PSG, Schalke. Nacho Fernández explained it through Madrid’s DNA.
“There are things we have to improve,” the defender admitted, and beyond the emotion there is an analysis, flaws to address, more purely footballing elements to examine in search of their success here, even beyond an excellent first leg in London. The introduction of Eduardo Camavinga for Toni Kroos, for one – vital here, as it was against PSG, Modric noting “the manager did good changes”. The ability of Thibaut Courtois, the most shot-at keeper in the Champions League. Vinícius Júnior and Karim Benzema. That Modric pass: so perfect, so his.
“But,” Nacho added, as if it explained everything, “this is Real Madrid.”
There are flaws but there is something, a mystic, a magic, a something. A lot of talent too, of course, even if that comes in moments more than full matches. And that part of the story, that idea of something almost spiritual, is more seductive on nights like this, even if it doesn’t explain everything, even if Madrid will lose some days too. Even if others sometimes win in wild ways too. Even if citing fate or fortune or something more fantastical risks being offered up in lieu of an analysis. This is not a sport that always has to make sense and quite often doesn’t.
Luka Modric tries to pick a way through Chelsea. His perfect pass set up one of Real Madrid’s goals. Photograph: Juan Medina/Reuters
With Madrid, especially. “You can’t explain miracles,” Jorge Valdano said. “The Bernabéu will become a site of pilgrimage.” Marca called it “the biggest madhouse in Europe”, home of the “only team capable of a feat like this”. El País opened its match report on: “This is how Madrid win. Like this, ask no more questions. No one in the footballing universe has the illogical logic Madrid have. A miracle? It’s Madrid, stupid.”
In the dressing room, Benzema told the club’s cameraman: “Ask David how you explain this.” David Alaba laughed, no real answer to give. “Madrid,” he replied. “Different.” On the pitch Alex Del Piero had embraced Modric, who bade farewell with a face that said: God knows what happened, heading into the tunnel with his tongue hanging out. “Unbelievable,” he called it, only it was also so very believable.
By the end Chelsea had taken 29 shots, and had 10 corners to Madrid’s one. Madrid had an improvised, and very small, back four: Lucas Vázquez on the right, Marcelo on the left, Carvajal in the middle. Benzema could hardly move. Modric was playing as a defensive midfielder. Vinícius could not go on. Chances dropped, right to the end: Christian Pulisic twice, Kai Havertz, Jorginho.
Karim Benzema scores Real Madrid’s decisive second goal against Chelsea. Photograph: Paul Childs/Action Images/Reuters
There was a moment, Modric said afterwards, when Real Madrid were “dead”. But that was when they came alive. When Madrid went 3-0 down, Ancelotti said it “liberated” them; until then he said they had “pulled back on the reins” too much. In the words of El Mundo, it was like they had to “look death in the face” before they reacted. Anything else is too routine. But dead? Those bastards just won’t die, the T-1000 hanging off your back bumper.
All they need, all of them, is a glimpse and they grab at it. Then they know. When Chelsea’s third goal was ruled out for a handball, something palpably shifted in the stadium, some collective sense that this was the moment, the first stirrings of a resurrection, time to do it again. Immediately, Benzema headed against the bar. “This is pure Madrid,” said Dani Garrido on the radio station Cadena Ser, laughing at the absurdity of it all, as if everyone saw what was coming. Before the game the huge banner had warned, “Don’t play with the king”, an inevitability about defeat; now he was ready to play, holding all the aces. “How could I not love you?” the Bernabéu started to sing, something awakened in all of them that even Chelsea actually getting the third soon after didn’t stop.
A moment after that, Courtois produced a superb save to prevent Chelsea’s fourth, that fantastic script given their ending instead. Within a minute, the outside of Modric’s right boot became the finger on God’s right hand, creator of life.
“And then the magic of the Bernabéu appeared, the magic of this club,” Ancelotti said. “It’s hard to explain the magic of the Bernabéu, but it helps the whole team have the energy to reach the semi-final, to never surrender. I am very, very happy to reach the semi-final suffering a lot. The more we suffer, the happier I am.”