Real Madrid stepped away from the precipice and into the next round. Not only that: on a night when they could have finished anywhere from first to fourth, in which the sword of Damocles hung over them, they do so as group winners and candidates again, avoiding Bayern, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Juventus and PSG. One of those giants instead await opponents Borussia Mönchengladbach, defeated but delighted here.
Faced with the prospect of elimination in the group stage for the first time, Madrid were revived once more, beating the Germans with two headed goals from an imperious Karim Benzema. In the end, the difference between these teams was vast but ultimately Gladbach did not mind.
At full time, Marco Rose’s team waited on the pitch, nervously watching events from Italy on an iPad; when the final whistle went at San Siro, a draw between Internazionale and Shakhtar Donetsk confirming their passage, they ran across the grass shouting and roaring in celebration.
By then, Madrid were inside the dressing room, the job done with such authority that it left the feeling that if they had lived dangerously – defeated twice by Shakhtar, rescued by late goals in Gladbach and here against Inter – they did so as much for the thrill of it as anything else.
It is the big games that bring the best out in them, as if the smaller teams and the lesser occasions provoke tedium. And this was the best of them, walking away from the edge with ease, as if laughing at the idea that they might have ever tumbled into the void. “We started with the desire to show that we’re the best,” Benzema said afterwards. “If we play like today, no one can hurt us.”
It was Gladbach’s sporting director who said that his side had left Madrid teetering on the edge but there wasn’t even time for vertigo here, Zinedine Zidane’s team taking control from the start and the lead from the eighth minute when Lucas Vázquez stood up a cross towards the far post which Benzema headed into the corner, so far beyond Yann Sommer that there wasn’t much point him even moving for it. On the night he equalled Roberto Carlos on 527 games for the club, Benzema had his 68th Champions League goal. For now, at least.
The drama was over. If the sense of total dominance was shaken soon after it was quickly restored again. Marcus Thuram had a shot beaten away by Thibaut Courtois and on twenty-five minutes, Alassane Pléa was suddenly released, racing away between Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane. With Courtois coming out to him, though, he clipped his shot past the far post, and Madrid went back to what they were doing.
Luka Modric especially. At the age of 35 he ran this game, every touch assured, the timing impeccable. Whenever an opponent came to him, he just turned away again, the ball obeying his right foot. At his command, and ably assisted all over the pitch, Madrid swept through this match, swiftly adding a second that started with Modric nudging to Rodrygo out on the right touchline.
Faced by Oscar Wendt, the Brazilian rolled it from one foot to the other and back, and then, without advancing, delivered a cross that was almost casual, curling between the two central defenders to where Benzema was waiting alone to head the ball into the net again. A third almost followed when Modric’s shot hit the post and when the Croatian smashed a rising shot into the net, only to see the flag go up.
Madrid continued to move the ball in time with Toni Kroos and Modric’s watches, incision coming from the right where Vázquez was full-back and winger in one. From the edge of the area Kroos, superb all night, forced an excellent save from Sommer, tipping over the bar. Comfort could bring with it a slight loosening of the grip, something underlined by Pléa’s low shot fizzing past the post, but Rodrygo immediately culminated a sharp move by flashing wide at the other end.
There was more. Sommer produced a sensational save from Ramos’s header and Benzema smashed the rebound off the bar. A gorgeous move concluded with Vázquez turning to thump off the post. And there was one last header for Benzema. None went in but it didn’t matter. Casemiro had called this a final and finals, he said, are not there to be played; they’re there to be won. Madrid did both and in a way that suggested they always knew they would.