Down on the touchline, Jurgen Klopp was tearing his new hair out. All the talk before Real Madrid's Champions League semifinal second leg against Borussia Dortmund was about the "Spirit of Juanito."
Sure, Madrid had lost 4-1 in the first leg, but it was not impossible that they could turn the tie around. After all, they had done it before. In fact, it had become something of tradition, one that went back to 1976 and a 5-1 win over Derby County, having lost 4-1 in the first leg, and was continued in the mid-1980s when Anderlecht, Cologne and Borussia Moenchengladbach defeated Madrid in European first legs only for Madrid to still go through.
Most famously of all, it had happened in 1986 when Inter Milan defeated Real Madrid 3-1 at San Siro. After the game, the attacker Juanito warned Madrid's victors: "ninety minutes at the Bernabéu are a very long time." The remark was made all the more memorable for the fact that Juanito said it in what he took to be Italian but was really Spanish with a cold Italian accent. And it was made more emotive by the fact that Juanito, one of the most volatile and best loved players in Madrid's history, died in a car crash in 1992.
So it was that
Tuesday night was no exception. Rather than lamenting their loss in the first leg, media, fans and the club began to talk of a historic fight-back; as if, rather than a reverse it was an opportunity. The club's TV channel showed comebacks on a loop, Juanito brought to the screen once more. Players appeared in a video appealing with fans to support them under the slogan, "Your strength is our strength."
They would ensure that 90 minutes was indeed a long time for Borussia Dortmund. But mostly, it wasn't. Thirteen minutes, on the other hand, was. An eternity. It was 0-0 when Karim Benzema scored in the 81st minute. Then, six minutes later, Sergio Ramos got the second. Suddenly, the game came alive; suddenly, Madrid needed just one goal to complete an incredible turnaround.
There were three minutes left, plus added time. When the board went up, it showed five more minutes. Dortmund were nervous. The ball kept coming back, launched into the area. It was not subtle, although Benzema had shown remarkable cool in creating the second for Ramos, but then the Spirit of Juanito is not supposed to be. Hearts were racing.
"It is impossible to describe what you feel," Klopp said. "It was such a crazy game. We have had to fight to the very end. We had to suffer to get to the final, but I always knew that the team would need some luck. What was I thinking in those final minutes? I was thinking: if God wills it, we'll go to the final. If he doesn't, we won't."
When the final whistle went there was relief for Dortmund. For Madrid, it was a heroic failure.
"The fans can be proud of us," said Sergio Ramos, who cried at the end, "if you're going to fall, better that it is like this."
Madrid had been so close to an incredible comeback. As the Spanish phrase had it, they had swum and swum only to die on the shore. But it had been a dramatic, epic effort; it had been so close; they had deserved more. That, at least, was the feeling at the final whistle.
They really had, too. Madrid's other sports daily,
But was it? And did they really deserve more? Dortmund's suffering was real; Madrid's hope was, too. But was it really a miracle that they did not make it? Madrid have made a virtue of the comeback, and it is both commendable and useful that they can cultivate an atmosphere in which there is a belief that they can do it, but the reality paints a different story. After this match, one Spanish journalist noted: the only thing that worked well for Madrid was the propaganda. That was harsh, perhaps even a touch bitter, but it is true that the last of the great comebacks was that one against Inter in1986 - twenty-seven years ago. It takes more than just courage. It takes control too.
In the last eleven years, Madrid have failed in all of their attempted comebacks, while they have had their own first leg leads overturned four times. Of the last fourteen times they have needed to comeback, they have failed to do so fourteen times. Yes, they could have done here, and the sense of danger and drama was inescapable for Dortmund, but they didn't. After Ramos's goal, they had just one shot in the remaining eight minutes. At the final whistle, Klopp insisted: "we absolutely deserved to go through."
He had a point. After the game, Real Madrid's former player Emilio Butragueño, a veteran of those mid-1980s fight backs and teammate of Juanito, spoke to the media in his capacity as institutional director.
"Fifteen bad minutes knock you out of Europe," he said.
He was talking about Real Madrid, but his phrase was surely more applicable to their opponents. Dortmund had ridden out a storm in the opening quarter of an hour during which Gonzalo Higuaín, Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Ozil all passed up wonderful chances to score. They then had to ride out the last 13 minutes, their nerves frayed. In the final minutes, Dortmund's fate was no longer in their hands, but that was perhaps the first time. For the immense majority of what went between, they appeared in control.
Felipe Santana might have been exaggerating when he said that he felt like Dortmund were never in danger, but you could understand why. Madrid had 23 shots, it is true, but only seven were on target -- and not one of them from the third minute to the 81st when Benzema scored. In the meantime, Robert Lewandowski scuffed one clear opportunity over, smashed another off the bar and failed to get good connection on a chest control and volley. He got four in the first leg; he could have gotten three here. Ilkay Gundogan should have scored, but Diego López made a stunning save.
Dortmund probably should have killed the game off. But if there were no goals there was another comforting number up on the scoreboard: the clock. It ticked steadily toward the 90th minute, with little apparent reaction from Madrid. Time drifted away, the edge drifted out of the atmosphere. If
It was largely only those last eight plus five minutes that felt "molto longo." And they felt very, very longo indeed. Until then Dortmund appeared to be easing its way to the finish line, Madrid panting along behind them.
"We stayed cool and tried to play football," Klopp said.
Until, that was, the final mad minutes when the noise became deafening and the threat constant. Now, suddenly, it was time to suffer, to ride its luck, for Klopp to call on a little divine help. When the dust finally settled, though, Dortmund could claim to have been the better side at the Bernabéu, and it was certainly the better side over the course of the two games of the semifinal. In fact, it was the better side over the four games the clubs have played this season.
"For many reasons, I think we deserved it," Klopp said, "this is so, so great and I am so proud of my players."
When Benzema scored, it set Madrid up for its first victory in four matches against the Germans: Dortmund had previously won 2-1 and drawn 2-2 in the group stage, with Ozil getting a late equalizer, and of course won 4-1 in the semifinal first leg, a game that Klopp insisted should be played on a loop in the club's museum. That would only happen, he warned, if Dortmund finished off the job. It did, but only just. Ramos got a brilliant second, but Madrid could not get a third. Dortmund is on its way to Wembley.