For the third time in four seasons, there will be two Madrid teams in the semifinals of the Champions League after Real, with a hat trick from Cristiano Ronaldo and the benefit of some dubious refereeing, edged by Bayern Munich in a dramatic game at the Bernabeu, while Atletico saw off Leicester City in England with a 1-1 draw.
Real Madrid led 2-1 after the first leg of the quarterfinals, but Robert Lewandowski put Bayern ahead on the day from the penalty spot. Ronaldo headed an equalizer and restored the aggregate lead, before an own-goal from Sergio Ramos leveled it at 3-3 and brought Bayern even on away goals. Arturo Vidal was then extremely unfortunate to be sent off before Ronaldo, clearly offside, gave Madrid the lead in the 104th minute. Marcelo, who had a superb game, then teed up a third for Ronaldo, who was offside again, and Marco Asensio got a fourth to make it 4-2 on the day, 6-3 on aggregate.
Atletico made sure of its progress with at King Power Stadium. Entering 1-0 up from the first leg, it rarely looked to be in any danger once Saul Niguez had put it ahead in the second leg 26 minutes into the first half, and it returns to the final four despite Jamie Vardy’s second-half goal.
Here are three thoughts on a wild day in the Champions League:
Ronaldo heroic, but Real Madrid rides good fortune
For a record seventh season in a row, Real Madrid is in the Chamions League semifinals, but it was very fortunate to overcome a Bayern side looking to become only the third side in history to win a Champions League series after losing the first leg at home. Not for the first time this season, though, there was little sense of coherence from Real Madrid. Nine times in its last 14 games, Madrid has gone behind, but this was only the second time it had lost over the course of 90 minutes–though this time it hardly mattered as it scored three in extra time. That speaks of great character, but it also suggests that for all the ability in this side, there is a lack of tactical nous, a lack of the capacity to control games that the very best sides have.
The first half had been remarkably open, Bayern having the better of the first 20 minutes or so and Madrid of the remainder of the half. But at the beginning of the second half, Bayern came again. Marcelo once more headed off the line as Arjen Robben stabbed a chip over Keylor Navas from David Alaba’s cross. Seconds later, the Dutch winger was fouled in the box after 51 minutes. Robben is a player who has a reputation for diving and never needs much invitation to go to ground, but Casemiro’s challenge on him was clumsy and the trip clear enough. Arturo Vidal had missed a penalty in the first leg, but this time Lewandowski stepped up, dropped Navas with his run-up and smashed the ball high down the middle.
Madrid switched to 4-5-1 after that, which gave it some stability and protected the flanks, where it had been vulnerable, although it was oddly diffident, neglecting to put pressure on the ball. As Bayern pushed on, it was always going to surrender chances, and, sure enough, Ronaldo, who had had a very quiet night to that point, headed in a 76th-minute Casemiro cross to make it 1-1 on the night. But within two minutes Lewandowski challenged for a ball in the Madrid box and the ball hit Nacho before bobbling in off Sergio Ramos.
Bayern seemed to have the momentum at that point, but with six minutes remaining, the tie tipped the way of Madrid as Vidal was sent off. Already booked, and warned for another clumsy challenge, he slid into a tackle on Marco Asensio. He seemed to win the ball cleanly, but Hungarian referee Viktor Kassai, who had neglected to send off Casemiro for what had seemed to be a second bookable foul on Robben, deemed it not merely a foul but one worthy of a second yellow card.
Bayern, surprisingly, showed little inclination to close the game down, and Madrid took advantage. First an offside Ronaldo converted a Sergio Ramos chip over the top, then he got his 100th Champions League goal after a great surge form Marcelo, although he was again offside. With Bayern exhausted, Asensio ran through to make it 4-2 on the night and 6-3 on aggregate.
Atletico a step too tall for Leicester’s tale
Atletico reached its third Champions League semifinal in four seasons and, in its best form of the season, has realistic hopes of winning the Champions League for the first time. Leading 1-0 from the first leg, it effectively put the tie beyond Leicester after 26 minutes, hen an unmarked Saul headed in Filipe Luis’s left-wing cross. With Christian Fuchs caught under the ball, it was a goal very similar to Pablo Sarabia’s for Sevilla against Leicester in the round of 16.
Thereafter there was only going to be one winner. Atletico simply looked tougher and smarter than Leicester, its fans so comfortable they were “ole“-ing every pass before halftime. That, perhaps, was a little premature, and Vardy pulled one back after 61 minutes, slamming in the rebound after Ben Chilwell’s shot had been charged down by Stefan Savic.
There was to be no fairytale comeback, though, and for all its aggression and desire, Leicester ended up looking a little limited. There’s no shame in that, though. This has been a remarkable journey, given it was only seven years ago that the club won promotion out of England’s third flight. This may have been the third time that Atletico has put Leicester out of Europe in the Foxes’ four seasons in continental competition, but it will be remembered far more fondly than any of its previous European campaigns.
Away goals rule unfortunately influential again
Those who love the away goals rule will see vindication in the way Bayern was made to chase the game in the second half, but the truth is both of Tuesday’s ties were unduly shaped by an archaic rule that makes no sense.
When Lewandowski converted his penalty early in the second half, Bayern and Madrid had both scored two goals in the series. Yet because of a regulation dreamt up half a century ago to encourage attacking football in an entirely different age, it meant Bayern was behind. A rapid exchange of goals later and suddenly, irrationally, the dynamic had changed.
Even worse was what the rule did in Leicester. When Saul put Atletico ahead, Leicester had the all but impossible task of scoring three so as not to lose. Imagine the mayhem that might have ensued when Vardy pulled one back. As it was, Leiecster still needed two to avoid defeat and the remainder of the game was played out in an atmosphere of largely hopeless frenzy.
Just because the away goals rule occasionally produces artificial drama doesn’t make it right or good for the game.