Real Madrid clutching at comeback legend

Even before the final whistle had gone in last Wednesday’s Champions League quarter-final first leg at Wolfsburg, talk of another historic second leg comeback by Real Madrid had begun.

Madrid went into the tie as huge favourites after their La Liga Clasico win at Barcelona the previous Saturday, but were deservedly beaten 2-0 by a better organised and more motivated Wolfsburg team.

The Los Blancos camp were of one mind when they spoke after the game however.

“Being Real Madrid we know we can turn this around at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu with our fans,” said coach Zinedine Zidane. “When the Bernabeu roars, not everyone can stand it,” said captain Sergio Ramos.

Over the following days the Madrid-based media went into full ‘remontada’ [comeback] mode. “Whoever doesn’t believe in a ‘remontada’ step aside,” said Marca’s cover on Thursday morning. “They believe,” said the rousing front page of Friday’s AS.

This remontada history began with a comeback against Derby County in the 1975/76 European Cup, with Celtic, Anderlecht, Inter Milan, Borussia Monchengladbach and Red Star Belgrade all falling victim over the next two decades.

The legend grew after a 2-0 first leg defeat at Liam Brady’s Inter Milan in the 1985/86 UEFA Cup, when ferocious Madrid attacker Juanito told Italian TV that “Noventa minuti en el Bernabeu son molto longo”. Juanito’s prediction came to pass and his unique mix of Spanish and Italian, meaning ‘90 minutes at the Bernabeu are very long’, went into Bernabeu history.

That was then, however. The most recent ‘remontada’ came in 2002 — when the original Galacticos side including Zidane turned around a semi-final against Bayern Munich on their way to winning the Champions League.

Since then Madrid have not managed to overcome any European first-leg deficit at home, with Roma, Olympique Lyon, Bayern, Borussia Dortmund and just last season Juventus the teams who have successfully withstood the pressure of the Bernabeu.

Juanito’s former teammate Santillana recently recalled those old comebacks in AS. “When we lost heavily away, we all got in the same shower and hatched a plot,” the former centre-forward said. “You could fit 120,000 people in the Bernabeu and they made sure you left your soul out there. We pressured them high, we went in strong into tackles, because the referees let you do it. And playing better or worse we said to the opponent: ‘Here we are.’”

In the modern game such physical and psychological pressure is not so easily applied. Instead Madrid must outplay Wolfsburg tomorrow, something which looks more difficult to do. The recent Clasico win came when athletes Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo counter attacked a tired Barcelona team. Breaking down opponents who can come and park their [Volkswagen] bus at the Bernabeu requires more guile and intelligence.

Although he has introduced holding midfielder Casemiro into the XI, Zidane has yet to show too much innovative tactical thinking. He was out-coached by Wolfsburg’s much lower profile Dieter Hecking in the first leg, with today’s galactico Ronaldo well bottled up. Asked why he withdrew his side’s best playmaker Luka Modric when faced with a packed defence, the manager replied unconvincingly: “Nothing to do with Luka, but I had to change something.”

The mood among Madrid fans is now pessimistic, despite Saturday’s facile 4-0 La Liga win against Eibar at the Bernabeu being immediately headlined ‘the road to the remontada’ in the local press.

The stats say that through UEFA history only 17% of the 678 teams in Madrid’s current position have progressed.


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