ETIHAD STADIUM, MANCHESTER — Real Madrid’s small army of traveling supporters have long been barred from leaving the Etihad Stadium following Tuesday’s 4-3 Champions League semi-final first leg defeat to Manchester City.
However, Carlo Ancelotti knew it was already time to start playing at the gallery.
Asked what the fans would be expecting in next week’s second leg at the Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid head coach Ancelotti replied: “They have to be ready because we are going to fight for another magical night.”
The seeds were already planted for madridistas and Ancelotti happily turned on the sprinklers. His message was clear: it’s time for another Reassembled – Real Madrid’s self-fulfilling mythology of magical European comeback.
“Even at the Bernabeu, if you’re one or even two or three or four, you have to perform,” said City manager Pep Guardiola, perhaps acknowledging that on the balance of the game it should have been the advantage of his team at halfway.
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City led 2-0 through Kevin De Bruyne and Gabriel Jesus on 11 minutes, then 3-1 and 4-2 at the start and end of the second half. But a Karim Benzema-inspired Madrid couldn’t be shaken and Barcelona great Guardiola is all too aware of the history Ancelotti hinted at.
“They have the ability to score three goals in 10 minutes. They have that ability, that quality for history, especially for the players they have,” he said.
Why are Real Madrid famous for their Champions League comebacks?
As with much of the pomp and bluster around Europe’s biggest clubs, the idea of Real Madrid as never-say-die escapologists was just that – a big story that every once in a while turned out to be true.
The myth turned into a monster during their three-game Champions League winning streak under Zinedine Zidane between 2016 and 2018. From Sergio Ramos’ uncanny talent to appear in the opposition penalty area to the heroics of the hat-trick from Cristiano Ronaldo, something about Madrid seemed inevitable. It was hard to consider them the best team in Europe at that time, but they went on to win the top prize.
There have been soft exits from the tournament since then, the two most recent behind closed doors. This season, with fans returning to the Bernabeu, Los Blancos have taken things to 11.
Paris Saint-Germain led 1-0 on the evening and 2-0 ahead on aggregate before a Benzema hat-trick left them in tatters. In some ways, their quarter-final comeback against Chelsea was even more remarkable, mainly because it should never have happened.
Another Benzema hat-trick at Stamford Bridge gave Ancelotti’s side a 3-1 first-leg lead which they gave up chaotically as they were 3-0 down on the night and 4- 3 in total. It took a sublime pass from Luka Modric to Rodrygo to force extra time, where Benzema duly did his thing.
Benzema and Modric inspire Real Madrid again
A deft first-half finish and his audacious Panenka penalty – after missing two spot-kicks at Osasuna seven days earlier – in Manchester meant Benzema stole the show again, but it was telling that Ancelotti also had goes out of his way to highlight 2018 Ballon d’ Or winner Modric when asked about the Frenchman.
“Karim had a fantastic game but he still does. He had the personality to take the penalty that way,” he said. “It was a spectacular penalty to take it that way. But I think Modric also played well.
Modric and Benzema are the key ingredients of life-imitating legend in this Madrid team as around them there is often a rambling mess. Take the Defensive Chaos Crew who fought their way through a relentless sky-blue storm on Tuesday.
Dani Carvajal and Eder Militao were all at sea as De Bruyne and his co-scorer Phil Foden shoved Madrid down their right flank. David Alaba was hampered by Jesus in City’s second and an injury to end his night at half-time was a relief.
Madrid’s lack of core skill against elite opponents means they need moments of inspiration to bail them out. Having two modern greats like Benzema and Modric compels time and time again imbues an unwavering belief that rings with those stories from the past.
Man City’s missed chances are a familiar lament
“It’s a team where we have players with a lot of experience. In difficult times they don’t lose their heads. That’s the characteristic of this team,” Ancelotti said. types of games and they don’t drop their heads, they stay cool in the moments they need to be.
If City had had the same composure all three times they were two goals clear on Tuesday, then the prospect of another famous comeback would not be so aired. Mahrez hitting into the side netting and Foden trailing wide on his favorite left foot as the score was 2-0 are the moments that stand out.
In any case, the leaders of the Premier League should really pass. Guardiola can mix up his attack to cause Madrid more headaches for this porous defense next week. Jack Grealish or Raheem Sterling could start and pose different problems.
Ilkay Gundogan could bolster the midfield and deprive Los Blancos of possession alongside Bernardo Silva, a typically tireless presence for City at home where his grating strike to make it 4-2 helped seal the man’s prize of the UEFA game. Chances are that first-choice full-backs Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo will both be available.
Still, Madrid are still alive. City have everything to make sure they miss out on the Remontada route, although Ancelotti knowingly speaks history and Benzema and Modric reject notions of logic, everything remains to be won.