Real Madrid-Bayern Munich tie defined not by mistakes but by beauty and bravery
MADRID — If you hear anyone trying to tell you that this wasn’t absolute sublime-quality, five-star, technically exquisite football, then shun them.
If you read or listen to someone droning on about how this Champions League semifinal between Bayern Munich and Real Madrid was decided only by mistakes, that there were too many errors to make this a classic, too many errors to suggest that Madrid can possibly be a threat to either Roma or Liverpool in the final, then either blow them a giant raspberry or laugh out loud. Noisily, in both cases.
This match was electric. It crackled with tension, with creative risk, with the sound of players’ ambition and hunger for victory snarling and roaring — all audible over the chanting of the crowd.
Every single player on the pitch strained his capacity to breaking point, effort, intensity, invention, risk, emotional involvement. In poker terms, every player was all-in for the full 95 minutes.
If people in your orbit want to talk only about the infinitesimal slip Sergio Ramos made for Bayern’s opening goal or try to blame Corentin Tolisso for his perfectly serviceable back-pass that Sven Ulreich messed up so that Karim Benzema could put Los Blancos 2-1 up, then ask them: Was the game thrilling? Were you on the edge of your seat? Did you see the skills? Don’t you admire the daring? Weren’t several of the combatants utterly heroic?
Ask them. Then ask them whether they’d like to see another game of this intensity, this complexity, this sacrifice next week.
I guess I’ve laid my cards on the table. When I watched the craft of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos trying the most subtle of first-touch passes to cut open the Bayern pressure, when I saw the man who looked the least “football able” on the pitch, Niklas Sule, stomp forward to make terrifically intelligent runs and then clever, clever centres from the touchline, it set my six senses alight.
Keylor Navas’ utterly fabulous saves from Tolisso and David Alaba — the first was so difficult it was improbable — weren’t simply technically and athletically fantastic. They were stark demonstration of admirable competitive spirit and composure from a man under gigantic personal and psychological pressure.
And his opposite number? Well, yes, he blundered. Ulreich’s intensity of focus was left indoors when the second half started. He acted as if he expected the ball to be down the other end for a significant time, time enough for him to settle in and get ready on the pitch, instead of being ready the instant he left the dressing room after half-time.
That’s why poor old Ulreich took a couple of seconds to realise that he couldn’t dive in and use his hands when Benzema tried to close down Tolisso’s back-pass, and that hesitation when he realised his error and tried to opt for a sliding kick cost both a second Madrid goal and, ultimately, Bayern’s place in the final.
But not long after that dreadful blunder that will haunt and scar the 29-year-old Stuttgart-trained keeper, his nerve was once again titanium strong.
Ulreich, Kimmich and Sule wanted to play out from the back. Cristiano Ronaldo, and eventually Kroos, raced up to press them in their own penalty area. But the Germans simply reverted to the “keep-ball chase-ball” exercise, which in Spain is called a “rondo,” in order to calmly use a triangle of passes to establish freedom from the press.
Sven Ulreich looks on after Bayern Munich were eliminated from the Champions League in the semifinals. David Ramos/Getty Images
Poor old Ulreich must have felt his heart bursting out of his jersey with the stress and adrenaline of possibly committing another tiny error and losing the ball in his own 6-yard box, but he controlled and passed the ball like a Bavarian Busquets. Chapeau, from me at least.
Thiago, bar once being caught in possession, controlled, turned, gyrated back the other way, fed the ball to others, showed for passes and, on two exceptional occasions, won utterly vital sprints to rob both Marcelo and Marco Asensio when failure would probably have led to a goal.
Okay, my list of credits could go on and on. The contest was that full of heroism, exceptional effort, technical sumptuousness and elite-level football played at an utterly relentless pace.
But the focus and the responsibility for all this has to go to the two coaches.
There was a time, when Jupp Heynckes was a player and while Zinedine Zidane was growing up, when this competition was still called the European Cup. Only the title winners from each country were allowed to enter, plus the previous season’s winner if that was a different club.
That competition produced extraordinary stories. It yielded a wider mix of finalists, and because clubs like Nottingham Forest, Steaua Bucharest, Aston Villa and Benfica won it, there’s a natural nostalgia for those times.
It’s only now that Real Madrid stand a chance of equalling a 42-year-old record of one club winning three straight finals. Of course, on a titanic night such as this, the last outfit to do that happens to have been Bayern.
What I know is forgotten or ignored — because I watched vast tracts of every European Cup competition from the early-1970s onward — is that there were many matches, indeed many seasons and very many finals when fear, conservatism, stubbornness and risk-free “percentage” football ruled. One mistake was often enough to punish the loser and gift glory to a winner.
Managers tried to close games down, players crowded defences, 0-0 and 1-0 were the fashionable scorelines and sparks of life. Anarchic play were not only scowled at — they were stamped out.
Most often, games of high importance were grey, dull, monotone, defensive, cynical and boring. Matches like this one would have been shocking — literally shocking.
In comparison, the first words Zidane uttered about the performance that took his team to Kiev, which allowed them the dream of winning a third straight European crown, were: “It was a mad game but beautiful. It was spectacular for everyone watching.”
His words, “mad”, “beautiful”, “spectacular”, are enchanting to me. But so were the attitudes displayed by the Frenchman and German who chose both the XIs and the tactics.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Toni Kroos celebrate after Real Madrid reach the Champions League final. GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images
Zidane, the winner, had options.
He could easily have used Nacho, whom he said was fit, at right-back and left Lucas Vazquez on the bench as an impact sub. He could have stuck with Casemiro in the middle of the engine room and asked for more control, more physical presence, more defensive rigor.
Instead, he asked Lucas to be as free-spirited, anarchic and dangerous as Marcelo. The Galician is prodigiously strong and fit but not a trained defender, so the risk that he overexposed the defence, that he was caught playing too high, was great.
But Zidane wanted extra pace, he wanted Mateo Kovacic to buzz around trying to tidy up trouble, and he wanted that line-breaking burst of dribbling and pace from the Croat. That automatically meant surrendering midfield security. Casemiro’s absence was a huge explaining factor for how Bayern continually drove through the middle of the pitch and fed either Robert Lewandowski or Thomas Muller dropping into the space between midfield and defence.
The premium for us, the spectators, was vast entertainment. This was Zidane’s promise from well before he took over this job.
“My football will be offensive, front foot, it’ll be trying to score more and more goals — it’ll be entertaining,” he told France Football in a long interview several months before he replaced Rafa Benitez.
From that brand of football — which looks naive, which leaves your team hugely open, which offers the rival a compendium of space and chances — he has now qualified for three straight Champions League finals, won one La Liga, lifted two Club World Cups and chucked in some Super Cups for good measure.
Okay, okay, critics. It’s not ultra strategic, it’s not ultra sophisticated, but it is a bet on three things: Our quality will be greater than yours, we’ll outscore you, and this will win hearts and minds because it’ll be roller-coaster entertaining.
Zidane’s premium, then, for this risky midfield choice? Kovacic playing several passes and dribbling twice into space during the 28-pass, 77-second move that ended with Marcelo (supplied by the Croat) crossing for Benzema to head home the 1-1 goal.
To Heynckes too, thank you. He chose Tolisso in midfield instead of the Casemiro-style Javi Martinez and asked the Frenchman to burst forward, to dribble past players. Heynckes also demanded that his full-backs, Joshua Kimmich (who scored) and Alaba (who demanded a brilliant save from Navas), play every bit as anarchically and daringly as Marcelo and Lucas.
The elephant in the room, of course, is that Bayern were denied a clear penalty when Marcelo handled Kimmich’s cross. But I won’t fall into the trap I’ve criticised others for stumbling into.
This wasn’t a match, or a tie, defined by Rafinha’s first-leg blunder, Ulreich’s momentary loss of concentration, referee Cuneyt Cakir’s error, Ramos’ slip for the first goal on Wednesday, Lewandowski’s dreadful lack of touch in front of goal or the 52nd-minute, NFL-style, extra-point hoof into the stands from Ronaldo when the goal was at his mercy.
This was an adrenaline high. This was truly the beautiful game: exquisite skills, ultra risks, like a bumper-car ride at the fair but using Maseratis, Rolls-Royces, Ferraris and Mercedes. Some body work was damaged — it’s not the normal way to use elite-performance machines — but, boy oh boy, was it high-speed fun.