Real Madrid were given an almighty scare by Chelsea on Tuesday but the eternal brilliance of Luka Modric and Karim Benzema prevailed and now they are in sight of their 14th European Cup.
With the Santiago Bernabeu just about empty, except for the Chelsea fans still singing up in the highest corner, down below the talk had already turned to Madrid not just reaching the final, but winning the tournament again.
“Nobody can say we’re not going to win it,” said Real coach Carlo Ancelotti.
It will be Real Madrid’s eighth semi-final in 10 years and of the previous seven, they were crowned champions four times. Since the start of the Champions League era, they have reached 15 semis in total and on seven of those occasions went on to lift the cup.
This will surely be a particularly difficult year, with Manchester City and Liverpool so clearly another level above the rest of Europe’s elite.
Madrid have been granted no favours with the draw.
After beating Paris-Saint Germain in the last 16 and Chelsea in the quarters, their most likely route now is City in the semis and Liverpool in the final.
That has echoes of their incredible run to the trophy in 2018 when they also had to get past most of the favourites, including PSG, Juventus, Bayern and then Liverpool in the final.
Liverpool are a different beast now, perhaps even at their peak under Jurgen Klopp, while Madrid are a reduced version of themselves four years on, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos both gone and Gareth Bale relegated to irrelevance.
Given their record in the derby, Madrid would love to face Atletico Madrid in the semis. A showdown with City, who won convincingly when they met over two legs in 2020, would surely have Guardiola’s team as favourites.
Yet Real Madrid will believe they have enough.
Not least because Benzema is more influential now than ever, a talismanic figure suddenly, and with a chance to make this Champions League his own, a trophy for which his contributions — already two hat-tricks and an extra-time winner against Chelsea — would forever be remembered.
It might also win him the Ballon d’Or.
Modric showed against Chelsea, with that mesmerising pass to Rodrygo with the outside of his right foot, how he can still manipulate the biggest nights in Real Madrid’s favour.
At 36, there is a strong argument to say Modric is playing better than ever.
“We were dead until the goal we scored,” said Modric. “We didn’t give up. We kept believing, kept fighting.”
‘Magic at the Bernabeu’
With those two, Madrid have a pair of trump cards but there are others being briefly overlooked in the haze of the Chelsea triumph.
Thibaut Courtois has a claim to be the best goalkeeper in the world on the back of a magnificent season.
Vinicius Junior, who teed up Benzema’s winning header, has emerged as one of the most intimidating wide forwards in the world.
Toni Kroos is still a master of control. David Alaba and Eder Militao have ensured Ramos and Raphael Varane have not been missed.
There should also be an advantage in the wider context of Madrid’s season.
Liverpool and Manchester City’s neck-and-neck fight for the Premier League title offers them little room for manoeuvre and while Villarreal will focus almost completely on their Champions League fairytale, Atletico Madrid are still scrapping to finish in La Liga’s top four.
In comparison, Real Madrid’s 12-point lead at the top of La Liga means they can use domestic games to rotate and refresh, while keeping their veterans in prime condition for the semis.
And there are the less tangible advantages of Real Madrid’s European hegemony: their self-belief, experience, a sense of ownership the club has over the Champions League.
Even at 3-0 down against Chelsea, Madrid never panicked. They knew one moment was all it would take to bend another of these nerve-shredding games to their will.
“At the Bernabeu, nothing is ever lost,” said Ancelotti.
“I can’t explain it but there is a magic at the Bernabeu that helps you.”
It is the psychological reward that comes from housing 13 European Cups and — for the likes of Modric, Benzema, Casemiro and Kroos — winning four in five years.
Now they have their eyes on a fifth.
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