The anatomy of a remontada: History and myths of Real Madrid's famous European comebacks

Author Photo
Real Madrid have a famous history of European comebacks

SANTIAGO BERNABEU, MADRID — By 2016, the son of one of the men most synonymous with Real Madrid comebacks had just about had enough of all the carry-on.

“Leave my father in peace, every time you mention his name to make a comeback, we lose,” Roberto, the offspring of Madrid hero Juanito, tweeted after recently-appointed head coach Zinedine Zidane and his players slipped to a 2-0 first-leg defeat at Wolfsburg.

Former Spain forward Juanito starred in the great Madrid teams of the 1980s alongside the likes of Jorge Valdano and Emiliano Butragueno who, much like the current vintage, never seemed to know when they were beaten.

A tenacious performer who, for better or worse, generally pushed everything to the limit (see his shocking 1987 assault on Bayern Munich's Lothar Matthaus for the regrettable side of that coin), Juanito embodied Madrid’s desire to fight to the end and claimed he would have been an ultra on the terraces had he not been a player.

MORE: Ballon d'Or cases made by De Bruyne and Benzema: 4 hot topics from Man City vs. Real Madrid

“Ninety minutes in the Bernabeu is a very long time,” Juanito famously warned Inter Milan after the Serie A side claimed a 2-0 win in the first leg of the 1984/85 UEFA Cup semi-final at San Siro.

It is a warning Manchester City’s players, 4-3 victors in last week’s thrilling Champions League semi-final first instalment, will not have to search too far to find in the Spanish capital on Wednesday.

After Juanito put Inter on notice, Madrid promptly won 3-0 and lifted the trophy in the final. They did it again the following year, losing 3-1 in Italy before beating Inter 5-1 after extra-time. By that point, it had become a ridiculous habit. 

How did Real Madrid get their reputation for Remontadas?

In the 1985/86 round of 16, Borussia Monchengladbach walloped Los Blancos 5-1 but lost 4-0 at the Bernabeu to bow out on away goals. At the same stage the season prior, Anderlecht won 3-0 against Madrid before enduring a 6-1 hammering in the return.

These logic-defying feats came to be attributed to the “Spirit of Juanito”, something Madridistas celebrated even more poignantly after the player’s tragic death in a car crash in 1992.

But by the time his son Roberto felt compelled to speak out, Madrid's reputation for remontadas had become somewhat tenuous.

In 2012/13, 4-1 down to Jurgen Klopp’s rampant Borussia Dortmund in the semi-finals of the Champions League, Jose Mourinho’s Madrid failed to turn things around despite a whole manner of talk to the contrary.

Indeed, in the Champions League era, Madrid had been more likely to lose from a winning position than pull off a comeback.

Such turnarounds were a fading memory of decades past when Roberto made his plea and Madrid faced up to another Bundesliga-crafted exit.

In the home leg of the 2013/14 quarter-final against Wolfsburg, Cristiano Ronaldo rattled home a hat-trick, and a new era of Madrid being driven by a heady combination of self-belief, skill and apparent destiny began.

There were no other comebacks comparable to the Wolfsburg quarter-final under Zidane, but it set in motion a remarkable run of three consecutive Champions League triumphs at a time when Madrid could rarely, if ever, be considered the elite side in Europe.

They simply never knew when they were beaten.

Can Real Madrid make another comeback against Manchester City?

This season, inspired by the indomitable Karim Benzema, they have been performing like a sort of comic book superhero version of Real Madrid.

In the last 16 against Paris Saint-Germain, they were outplayed for three quarters of the tie and 2-0 down on aggregate before Benzema produced a brilliant hat-trick.

An even better treble from the French centre-forward had Madrid 3-1 up and cruising against Chelsea in the quarter-finals but they apparently like acts of escapology so much that they decided to engineer one.


Ninety minutes at the Bernabeu was turning into a very long time for Carlo Ancelotti’s men as the Premier League side completely dominated and established a 3-0 lead. Then Rodrygo volleyed in a pass from the gods from Luka Modric, and Benzema popped up in the additional period to prove 120 minutes at the Bernabeu is even longer.

This is the volume of history booming out of every pre-match preview, which City must do everything in their considerable power to dampen down.

There will undoubtedly be a storm or two to ride out for Pep Guardiola’s side but, as Roberto succinctly pointed out, there is a not-inconsiderable amount of bluster around Madrid on these occasions.

How many times have Manchester City beaten Real Madrid?

One of the reasons those 1980s heists against Inter remain so fondly remembered was the stage of the competition. In Champions League semi-finals, Madrid have never won on the previous five occasions they have sustained a first-leg deficit.

Following on from wins in each game of their 2019/20 last-16 encounter, City are aiming to make it four consecutive Champions League wins against Madrid - a feat that would put them in an exclusive club alongside Ajax (between 1973 and 1995) and Bayern (between 2000 and 2002).

MORE: Kevin De Bruyne key to Pep Guardiola's battle with chaos and control at Man City

Guardiola copped some post-watershed songs from the Madrid contingent during the first leg and the Barcelona great has previous when it comes to enjoying himself at the Bernabeu.

After victories with Barca in 2010/11 and City two years ago, he could become the first manager to record three away wins at the competition’s most famous arena.

Whatever the outcome on Wednesday, history will be written, irrespective of whether the Bernabeu's further legendary acts burnish the mythology of Real Madrid.

Author Photo
Dom is the senior content producer for Sporting News UK.