It almost felt inevitable that Zinedine Zidane’s side would turn it around until Mason Mount sank Europe’s great survivors
There is a scene in Pulp Fiction where a man bursts from Brett’s bathroom and unloads on Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield. Bullets fly until the chamber empties, the trigger clicks, silence falls and he realises that somehow they’re still standing and he’s the one that’s finished. Vincent and Jules look down at their miraculously unscathed bodies, raise their guns and with a single shot each he’s dead, leaving them to examine the bullet holes in the wall, Jules determined that his partner recognises this as divine intervention.
That’s Real Madrid, or so the story goes. Fail to kill them and they’ll be back; let them off and live to regret it, if you live at all. At times it can defy logic, unbelievable and yet so very believable. And at 10.45pm in Spain on Wednesday night, whether through incurable optimism, lingering pessimism or simple familiarity, it was possible to imagine it happening again. Despite all the evidence, or perhaps because of all the evidence, it was even possible to see it as inevitable.
Chelsea had fired off round after round, Madrid at their mercy, and yet still it wasn’t done. The had dominated the first leg and somehow only drawn; in the second, they had hit the bar, missed sitters, wasted endless opportunities, and encountered Thibaut Courtois, a one-man resistance. According to Opta, no Champions League game had ever produced such a disparity in expected goals. But when it came to actual goals, it was only 1-0, heading into the final five minutes, Real Madrid time.
Not this time. Chelsea sliced through again and Mason Mount ended it at last: no miracle, no way out and no excuses either, just the truth. And the truth hurt. Except that listening to Real’s coach and players afterwards, it seemed to hurt a little less than expected. Maybe because it had been assimilated already, now seen as inescapable, because they hadn’t thought they would even get this far. Watching Eden Hazard greeting his former teammates, it didn’t seem to hurt at all – a facile conclusion many reached, the Belgian cast as a scapegoat as if this was all his fault.
Zinedine Zidane said he was “proud” of his players, “happy with what we’ve done in the Champions League”. Vinícius Júnior said: “It’s normal to lose at some point.” Courtois admitted: “They could have ended it sooner.” The former Madrid player, manager and director Jorge Valdano, asked how he felt, replied: “Resigned. Frankly, Madrid didn’t deserve more.”
There was talk of injury – Madrid have had more than 50 this season – and tiredness. A few weeks ago, Zidane had admitted his players were at the “limit physically”. Raphaël Varane, Dani Carvajal and Lucas Vázquez were out. Sergio Ramos and Ferland Mendy returned just in time; had it not been this game, they might not have done. Fede Valverde, isolated for twelve days because of Covid, couldn’t start. Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, protected recently having played over 3,000 minutes, were overrun.
Afterwards Casemiro started listing the issues faced, from injuries to Covid and a strange season without fans, but then stopped himself. “There are no excuses,” he said. “We tried, but they were better than us.”
Those mitigating factors were not minor, but in Casemiro’s words lay a simple, direct judgement reflecting a broader reality. It was curious to see such acceptance of a tie which could have concluded with a historic hammering, one in which Madrid’s inferiority had been so manifest. Zidane noted that by the end his team was “running low on petrol” and had failed to take chances, but accepted Chelsea were the better side, and he knows it is deeper than that.
It certainly goes deeper than Hazard, even though he attracted rage. You may have seen the videos: of Hazard laughing with Chelsea’s players and of the Chiringuito editorial, all brooding music and dramatic pauses, the presenter striking him down with great vengeance and furious faux anger, which is their wont (and something to bear in mind, as is their relationship with Florentino Pérez). “Hazard,” Josep Pedrerol declares, “cannot stay at Madrid a second longer.”
On one level, Hazard stands accused of having friends, which is hardly the most heinous crime, although if only for the sake of self-preservation his actions might not have been particularly sensible. There is something superficial in it all but it is not entirely without substance. Hazard cost €160m and has been largely an irrelevance. On Wednesday night he was again likened to Gareth Bale, a man who got injured and supposedly didn’t care – “Wales. Golf. Madrid” and all that – and a man who, including the shootout in Milan, has scored four times for Real in Champions League finals. Hazard has scored four in total. Desperately unlucky with injury, 389 days spent out, Hazard has also been accused of not doing his part. One radio broadcaster said he has “love handles”, another citing “a belly like a holidaymaker in Benidorm”.
After the game Zidane said: “He has to play to get his confidence back bit by bit: we have to recover Eden.” But this was a Champions League semi-final second leg, raising questions as to why a place was kept for him as he returned from his latest injury, what message that delivers – a question, incidentally, that might be applied to Ramos too. All the more so when it brings with it Vinícius playing at right wing-back.
The answer may be that, as well as the emotional and economic investment, Zidane still felt they needed Hazard, who theoretically still has something the rest don’t. Get him fit and he could be the brilliant footballer they need. Madrid’s second top scorer this season is Casemiro, a defensive midfielder. Karim Benzema has been superb – along with Courtois, the reason Madrid had a chance at all – but he has often been alone.
Early in 2021, when their season appeared a write-off, Zidane demanded a little respect. This group had won the league, he said; they should have the right to defend it. Madrid reacted impressively – this was their first defeat since January – but the underlying issues were unchanged. It would also be legitimate to ask why Madrid should need to react, why the team that beat Barcelona, Atlético, Liverpool, Atalanta and Inter didn’t beat smaller sides, why players so practiced at stepping back from the abyss found themselves standing there in the first place.
Besides, overlooked from that discourse was that Zidane had said: “Things will change next year.” Recently, it has felt increasingly like one of those things may be him. And in any case, his words contained a recognition that all was not right, a hint that he was clinging to one final chance, a last dance.
The squad was short but Martin Ødegaard and Luka Jovic left in the winter, seeking opportunity. Ramos still has not renewed. Varane has intimated that he may walk away. The talk is of big signings, Kilian Mbappé especially, but the lasting message from the super league mess was that Madrid can’t really afford that. Luka Modric is 35. Ronaldo left. Bale is at Spurs. Since Madrid’s last Champions League, their third in a row, they have won a lockdown league and could yet win another but they have been knocked out of Europe by Ajax, Manchester City and Chelsea. On each occasion they were clearly inferior, logic imposed. Zidane has relied largely on the old guard: brilliant at times, but nothing is eternal.
“There is no explanation, no excuses,” Casemiro said on Wednesday. “It’s not easy to win the Champions League. Today showed that what we did was historic.” They are not that team any more and there isn’t always a miracle waiting. In the end, Butch catches Vincent Vega coming out of his bathroom, and Madrid fall at Stamford Bridge.
Culled from www.theguardian.com