Real Madrid absorbs Atletico's best shot in Calderon farewell, survives to reach UCL final

0:52 | Planet Futbol
Real Madrid, Juventus to meet in Champions League final
Wednesday May 10th, 2017

Real Madrid will play Juventus in the Champions League final after battling past Atletico in their semifinal derby. Already 3-0 up from the first leg after Cristiano Ronaldo's hat trick, Real lost 2-1 on the day but went through 4-2 on aggregate.

Atletico got off to the perfect start, with a Saul Niguez header and an Antoine Griezmann penalty giving the club a 2-0 lead within 16 minutes. But Zinedine Zidane’s side battled back to score a vital away goal through Isco on the stroke of halftime.

It will be Real Madrid’s third final in four seasons as it seeks to become the first team since AC Milan in 1990 successfully to defend the trophy. It also sets out to pad its record of European titles and become the first to win 12.

Real Madrid beat Juventus in the 1998 final, with a solitary goal from Predrag Mijatovic securing its seventh European championship.

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Here are three thoughts on Real Madrid's semifinal triumph:

Atletico's dream start made the impossible seem possible

From the opening whistle, it was clear this was a far livelier Atletico than we saw in the first leg. Perhaps Real Madrid was a little complacent, seeing the tie as effectively done. The warning was there after six minutes as Koke met a Yannick Carrasco cross at the near post to draw a fine save from Keylor Navas. But it wasn’t heeded. With 12 minutes gone, Saul got above Ronaldo to power in a Koke corner. Navas got a hand to his header but couldn’t keep it out.

Four minutes later it was 2-0. Raphael Varane’s challenge on Fernando Torres was clumsy, although he may not have gone down had he not trodden on the ball–which may have been a result of the challenge. Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir decided that was enough to give the penalty, though. Atletico had missed eight of 13 this season, and Griezmann had had missed in the final against Navas last year. He slipped as he took it and his penalty was poor, struck at average pace straight down the middle, but Navas was leaning back as the ball reached him and he ended up pushing the ball into the roof of the net. Until Isco struck, there was full belief that Atletico could find another in the remaining 74 minutes.

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Away goals rule exists ... why again?

It’s becoming a familiar refrain, but this was another fixture shaped by an illogical rule. When Atletico went 2-0, most logic said it should keep pushing, should go all out for a third while Real was rocking. But instead, Atletico sat off, apparently concerned about conceding to a side that had scored in each of its last 60 matches. Atletico knew that as soon as Real scored, of course, it left Atletico, rather than having to score one to force extra time, having to score three so as not to be beaten.

Perhaps that wouldn’t matter so much if the rule itself weren’t so arbitrary, a hangover from the days when A) stadium environments weren’t so sanitized and homogenized and away trips sent teams into truly alien environments; and B) physical play wasn’t penalized as it is now and it was much easier for a team to set up defensively away from home and draw 0-0. How can it make sense that Saul’s early goal would have been worth more had it been scored 13 minutes of game time earlier, last week rather than this?

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Watch: Isco away goal kills off Atletico Madrid comeback, helps Real reach UCL final

Sure enough, an away goal ended up killing the game. Karim Benzema did brilliantly to wriggle away from Stefan Savic and Diego Godin and cut the ball back for Toni Kroos. Although Jan Oblak made an excellent save low to his right, Isco was there to knock the ball over the line. Suddenly Atletico needed three, an impossible task; whereas the two it needed to level the score might conceivably have been within reach.

Having scored the goal, Real Madrid, with Luka Modric and Isco both commanding, never really looked like being rattled for a second time–although Navas did make one remarkable double save form Carrasco then Kevin Gameiro midway through the second half. Modric’s calmness on the ball, in fact, was a major reason for Real getting back into the game. His side probably would have prevailed anyway. But the problem with the away goals rule is that, artificially, it ended any sense of jeopardy or threat 45 minutes early.

A wild farewell to the Calderon cauldron

This was the last European match at Atletico’s Estadio Vicente Calderon, as the club moves into more comfortable surroundings at the Wanda Metropolitano, and for a while it looked as though it may be a night to remember. Amid high winds, the noise was ferocious and Atletico’s players began at a pace to match Diego Simeone’s line that his players were as hungry as if they hadn’t eaten for four days.

From the off there were brusque and late challenges flying in, with players from both sides feigning injury and surrounding the referee to demand cards. Fortunately, Cakir is an experienced referee and not somebody to be intimidated or swayed. By halftime he’d shown five yellow cards, including one apiece to the two captains, Gabi and Sergio Ramos, for demanding cards for opponents who had committed fouls.

Much of the intensity left the game, though, with Isco’s goal. The crowd remained noisy, even as the rain poured down in the final minutes, but hope was gone, and for a fourth straight season, Real Madrid has advanced at the expense of its city rival.

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