Real Madrid’s season is still alive. Zinedine Zidane’s side came from a goal down to beat Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of the teams’ last-16 tie on Wednesday to show why they have such a special affinity with the Champions League.
Los Blancos have won the European Cup 12 times and six of those trophies arrived before PSG were founded in 1970. The next six have come in more recent times, including back-to-back victories in the past two seasons. And sometimes, history has an impact in these ties.
Despite Madrid’s poor form, which had seen them fall out of contention in La Liga and eliminated from the Copa del Rey, there was always the feeling they could produce when it mattered most – even against PSG’s formidable forward line that came into this game rated as the best in Europe.
“I am disconcerted by Real Madrid,” the club’s former player Jorge Valdano said in the lead-up to this match. “I will find it even more difficult to understand if they brush aside PSG, but it wouldn’t surprise me either.”
And ultimately, that is exactly what happened. In truth, it can always happen in the Champions League. Why? Because in these huge one-off games when their future is at stake, and in their competition of choice, Madrid’s players work harder. They give more.
It is for that reason that Madrid have won the Champions League three times over the past four seasons, but more often than not lacked the consistency to claim La Liga (one title since 2012) week in, week out over nine or 10 months.
Madrid were in trouble. Not just before the game, but also in it as PSG took the lead through Adrien Rabiot. Then, the match and probably the tie was there for the taking and there was a chance for Unai Emery’s side to make it 2-0.
Real were all over the place, but they soon settled and were able to get back into the game through a somewhat soft penalty. Cristiano Ronaldo stepped up to score it and it was his 100th goal for the club in the Champions League – an absolutely astonishing feat.
After that, it looked like it would finish all square as the second half became more and more cagey. A draw would not have been a particularly great result for Madrid, though, with a tough trip to Paris ahead on March 6. So, in the last few minutes, Zidane’s side went for it – and they received their reward.
Zidane was stubborn, first by picking the out-of-sorts Karim Benzema and then by leaving him on the pitch for so long. But he eventually opted for Gareth Bale plus the extra energy of Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio, and those substitutions made all the difference.
Ronaldo was in the right place at the right time to knee home a second goal he knew little about with seven minutes left, before Marcelo’s deflected shot made it 3-1 right before the end. It was not the perfect result, but given the circumstances of the night, it was a dream scenario for Real.
There was an element of luck about all three goals, while some of the decisions went their way on the night too (including the penalty and a Sergio Ramos handball the referee failed to spot).
But Madrid had earned that good fortune. PSG had appeared content to stick with what they had, failing again on the big occasion just as they had against Barcelona last season, throwing away the 4-0 lead they had earned exactly a year earlier on February 14, 2017.
“We have to be optimistic ahead of the second leg, and play again as we did today, when we created a lot of chances,” Emery said, putting a brave face on a defeat which could and should have been a better result for side.
It will be a long way back now, however, even at the Parc des Princes, and perhaps Sergio Ramos summed it up best. “You can never take Real Madrid as dead,” he said.
In the Champions League, that has been proven over and again and, as PSG’s project looks on the brink, Los Blancos seem set for the quarter-finals. And despite the pre-match form guide, nobody should really be surprised at all.