Madrid prove to Bayern their mythical Champions League status

MUNICH, Germany — When manager Thomas Tuchel was asked this week to assess Bayern Munich‘s challenge against Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League semifinal he paused for a second before explaining they would not just be facing a team, but also a “myth.”

The Spanish giants have been so successful in Europe’s premier club tournament, he said, that it couldn’t simply be a case of talent and experience, but also something almost supernatural. Whatever it is that takes over Real Madrid in this competition was in evidence again at the Allianz Arena on Tuesday.

On a night of fine margins, Bayern edged the game by nearly every statistical measure. But yet when the second leg kicks off at the Santiago Bernabeu in eight days’ time, it will be Real Madrid in pole position to reach the final at Wembley in June thanks to a 2-2 draw secured in Munich. There’s no other team in the world that knows how to get over the line like Real Madrid in the Champions League and from here it would be a surprise if they didn’t finish the job in Spain next week and give themselves a chance of a record-extending 15th title.

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Afterwards, Tuchel was left frustrated, but he’s seen it all before. “Real Madrid have done it before, scoring two goals out of two chances,” he said in his post-match news conference.

“We are not the first team to which it happens. They are clinical and have the patience to wait for it. Real Madrid does this to teams so we should not be disappointed for too long.”

Delicately poised, this tie is not over and Bayern still have 90 minutes to turn it around. But as their players joined hands in front of the still-bouncing Sudkurve at the final whistle, they looked like a group contemplating what might have been. They outplayed Real Madrid for the first 20 minutes but couldn’t score.

Then, leading 2-1 early in the second half, they passed up opportunities to get a third. It’s been another bruising week for Tuchel — accused by Bayern honorary president Uli Hoeneß of not being able to “develop” players — but he can be satisfied that his tactical tweak to bring on Raphaël Guerreiro at half-time and stretch the game with wingers Leroy Sané and Jamal Musiala injected his team with enough impetus to score two quick goals.

But in the end, the story was about Real Madrid, the aura of a champion team and that mythical presence that nobody can quite put their finger on. Often the build-up to these games — two European heavyweights going head-to-head at the business end of the most prestigious club competition in the world — is dominated by talk of pressure.

But Real Madrid have players like Vinícius Júnior. In the third minute, he was charged down on the touchline by four Bayern defenders only to dissect them all with a casual flick of the ball to a teammate as if he was having a kick-about with his friends on the street. Pressure? What pressure?

There was no panic either when, after 40 seconds, Bayern sliced through with three passes from goalkeeper Manuel Neuer to Sané and Andriy Lunin was forced into an early save. The 75,000 home fans roared with approval, but it barely seemed to make an impression on the slow heart rates of Vinícius, Nacho, Antonio Rüdiger and Toni Kroos.

Kroos used to play for Bayern and was booed mercilessly as he meandered over to take a first-half corner. The German midfielder is the epitome of this team, with the experience to slow the game down when it’s needed but also the quality to quicken it up when the opportunity presents.

Spotting Vinicius darting behind Kim Min-Jae midway through the first half, he threaded a precise pass through for the Brazilian to score with Real Madrid’s first shot of the night. The Brazilian has joined a prestigious group — Cristiano Ronaldo and Jari Litmanen are the only other players to score in three consecutive Champions League semifinals. After Tuchel’s changes had helped Bayern to score two goals in four minutes early in the second half from Sane and a Harry Kane penalty it looked as if maybe for once Real Madrid’s stardust had been lost on the flight. Not quite.

Presented with a penalty in the dying minutes after Rodrygo had been tugged down by Kim following a rare move forward, Vinicius tucked it away to send his team back to Madrid with momentum and the promise of yet another final.

It was their seventh goal in the last 15 minutes of Champions League games this season, a record no other team can match, manager Carlo Ancelotti summed it up perfectly in his post-match press conference; Real Madrid did enough and there won’t be many now betting against them doing the same at the Bernabeu.

“Bayern showed their best qualities and us only part,” said Ancelotti, another with that necessary experience as he took charge of a record-equalling 10th Champions League semifinal. “We play against a great opponent and it’s all still open. We need the best version of Real Madrid and we didn’t see it today. Still, we have a great chance to reach the final.”

And there, in a nutshell, is Real Madrid. Not at their best, but still right there in the Champions League. Again.

This post was originally published on ESPN

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