ETIHAD STADIUM, MANCHESTER — Real Madrid’s small army of travelling supporters had not long been allowed to leave the Etihad Stadium after Tuesday’s coruscating 4-3 Champions League semi-final first leg defeat to Manchester City.
Yet, Carlo Ancelotti knew it was already time to start playing to the gallery.
Asked what would be expected of fans at the next week’s return leg at the Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid head coach Ancelotti replied: “They need to be ready because we’re going to fight for another magical night.”
The seeds were already planted for Madridistas and Ancelotti happily turned the sprinklers on. His message was clear: it’s time for another Remontada - Real Madrid’s self-fulfilling mythology of the magical European comeback.
“Even in the Bernabeu, if you are one up or even two or three or four you have to perform,” said City manager Pep Guardiola, perhaps acknowledging that on the balance of play this should have been his team’s advantage halfway through the tie.
City led 2-0 via Kevin De Bruyne and Gabriel Jesus inside 11 minutes, then 3-1 and 4-2 early and late in the second half. But a Karim Benzema-inspired Madrid could not be shaken and Barcelona great Guardiola is all too aware of the history Ancelotti alluded to.
“They have the ability to score three goals in 10 minutes. They have this ability, quality for the history, especially for the players that they have," he said.
Why are Real Madrid famous for Champions League comebacks?
As with much of the pomp and bluster around Europe’s grandest clubs, the idea of Real Madrid as never-say-die escapologists used to be just that - a tall tale that every now and then turned out to be true.
The myth mutated into a monster during their run of three consecutive Champions League wins under Zinedine Zidane between 2016 and 2018. From Sergio Ramos’ uncanny knack of popping up in the opposition penalty area to Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat-trick heroics, something about Madrid felt inevitable. It was hard to ever consider them the best team in Europe during that period, but they kept walking away with the top prize.
There have been limp exits from the tournament since then, the most recent two behind closed doors. This season, with fans back in the Bernabeu, Los Blancos have turned things up to 11.
Paris Saint-Germain were 1-0 up on the night and 2-0 ahead on aggregate before a Benzema hat-trick left them in tatters. In some respects, their quarter-final comeback against Chelsea was even more remarkable, mainly because it should never have had to happen.
Another Benzema treble at Stamford Bridge gave Ancelotti’s side a 3-1 first-leg lead that they shambolically surrendered to the extent they were 3-0 down on the night and 4-3 on aggregate. It required a sublime Luka Modric pass to Rodrygo to force extra time, where Benzema duly did his thing.
Benzema and Modric inspire Real Madrid again
A deft first-half finish and his audacious Panenka penalty - having missed two spot-kicks at Osasuna seven days earlier - in Manchester meant Benzema again stole the show, but it was telling that Ancelotti also went out of his way to highlight 2018 Ballon d’Or winner Modric when asked about the Frenchman.
“Karim had a fantastic game but he always does. He's had the personality to take the penalty in that way,” he said. “It was a spectacular penalty to take it in that manner. But I think Modric has played well as well.”
Modric and Benzema are the key ingredients to life imitating legend in this Madrid team because around them you often find a disjointed mess. Take the defensive chaos crew that shambled their way through a relentless sky blue storm on Tuesday.
Dani Carvajal and Eder Militao were all at sea as De Bruyne and fellow goalscorer Phil Foden ran roughshod over Madrid down their right-hand side. David Alaba was embarrassed by Jesus on City’s second and an injury to end his night at half-time felt like something of a relief.
Madrid’s lack of basic competence against elite opponents means they need moments of inspiration to bail them out. Having two modern greats like Benzema and Modric oblige time and again imbues a steely belief that chimes with those tales of the past.
Man City's missed chances a familiar lament
“This is a team where we have players with a lot of experience. In difficult periods they don’t lose their heads. That's the characteristic of this team,” Ancelotti said. “We’ve played so many of these type of games and they don’t let their heads drop. They remain cold-blooded in the moments that they need to be.”
If City had been similarly cold-blooded on the three occasions they were two goals in front on Tuesday, then the prospect of another famous comeback would not be getting such an airing. Mahrez lashing into the side netting and Foden dragging wide on his favoured left foot when the score was 2-0 are the moments that stand out.
In any case, the Premier League leaders really should go through. Guardiola can mix up his attack to cause more Madrid headaches for that porous defence next week. Jack Grealish or Raheem Sterling could start and pose different problems.
Ilkay Gundogan might bolster the midfield and starve Los Blancos of possession alongside Bernardo Silva, a typically tireless presence for City in the home leg where his rasping strike to make it 4-2 helped to seal UEFA's man-of-the-match award. There’s a good chance first-choice full-backs Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo will both be available.
Yet Madrid are still alive. City have everything to make sure they run out of Remontada road, although as Ancelotti talks knowingly of history and Benzema and Modric dismiss notions of logic, everything remains up for grabs.