Madrid (AFP) – Real Madrid were unspectacular and even unconvincing in their 2-1 win over Bayern Munich on Wednesday but there was nothing lucky about a victory that should ensure a fourth Champions League final in five years.
Zinedine Zidane has watched his side suffer through games away to Munich, the German champions, Paris Saint-Germain, the French champions, and Juventus, who sit top of Serie A, in Europe this season. But they won them all.
Real may not be outplaying their rivals, or even playing better than them, but Zidane’s team are ruthless. They pounce on mistakes and, even under the heaviest pressure, believe absolutely they are going to win.
“One of the reasons Madrid has 12 European Cups, perhaps a 13th, is its historical capacity to withstand stress situations,” wrote AS, the Spanish daily on Thursday. “To escape when their best football does not appear.”
Real feel at home in the Champions League – they have lifted the title three times in the last four years – and at home at the Allianz Arena, where they now have recorded three victories in a row.
Zidane has been in charge for two of those and the Frenchman emerges from the latest with his reputation as a tactician enhanced.
It was brave, if not surprising, to leave Gareth Bale on the bench again, along with the out-of-form Karim Benzema.
Instead he started Lucas Vazquez and Isco, and when Isco felt pain in his shoulder, he brought on, not Bale or Benzema, but Marco Asensio.
When Dani Carvajal was injured later in the second half, he introduced Benzema and trusted Vazquez to move to the right, where his task was to resist Franck Ribery.
All Zidane’s decisions paid off, most obviously when Asensio played a one-two with Vazquez, before sweeping in the winner and Real’s crucial second.
“When Zizou has to gamble, he does, because he is the boss,” captain Sergio Ramos said. “We are very happy that he is steering the boat.”
Ramos also aimed what has been interpreted as a dig at former Real coach Jose Mourinho.
“The coach of Madrid will always be questioned,” he said. “Although I spent seven years here without winning a Champions League and some of those coaches were never criticised.”
– Siege mentality –
But Zidane has channelled something of Mourinho’s siege mentality in recent weeks, departing from his usually serene demeanour to rage at suggestions Real “robbed” their victory against Juventus and had refereeing decisions to thank.
“When you are the best it creates jealousy,” Zidane said.
He praised Asensio on Wednesday, whose goal was perhaps his most important yet in a Real Madrid shirt.
“Marco was the difference,” said Zidane.
The 22-year-old’s cool finish spoke volumes for the talent of a player widely expected to become one of the finest in the world and it would not be a surprise if it earned him a start at the Santiago Bernabeu, in the return leg next week.
With Cristiano Ronaldo failing to score for the first time in 12 Champions League matches, these were the nights Bale was once supposed to fill the void.
But the Welshman started on the bench again, and remained there, watching three substitutions by his coach, none with his number on the board.
It is the second Champions League match from three that Bale has been denied a single minute on the pitch and in between, he was substituted at half-time against Juventus.
Bale had hoped to stay at Real and regain favour under Zidane, but his future with the club has perhaps never looked bleaker.