What was all the worry in Madrid about? Once again Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid, having started the Champions League group stage slowly, came through it in the end, and Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid also secured its place in the knockout stage, with the two Spanish capital powers avoiding a humiliating fate.
Real Madrid, which entered Wednesday with the potential of finishing anywhere from first to last in its group, wound up topping it, after everything, with a 2-0 win over Borussia Monchengladbach, while Atletico secured its place as the runner-up in its group behind Bayern Munich with a 2-0 at Salzburg.
The slow start may be a habit, but this was perhaps as close as Real Madrid has come since 1997 to failing to progress beyond the group stage. It has played well only in patches, and there have been some periods of dismal football: the first half against Shakhtar Donetsk at home, the second half against Shakhtar away, a large portion of the middle of the game at home vs. Inter and most of the match at Borussia Monchengladbach. It was that last game, really, where Madrid got back into the group–and there where Gladbach squandered its opportunity–stealing a draw after having been 2-0 down after 87 minutes.
Inter, which ended up bottom of the group and not even in the Europa League knockout rounds, will look back on its game against Madrid at the San Siro when it self-destructed and Arturo Vidal was sent off for pushing referee Anthony Taylor. A half-decent performance there, and who knows what might have been?
Having been so impressive for so much of the group, Gladbach seemed overwhelmed in Madrid. It lacked the zip and the bite that characterizes it at its best, didn’t press as high as it usually does, despite an overtly attacking lineup, and for long spells of the first half struggled to get the ball out of its own half. Both goals came before halftime and both came from a similar source, with Karim Benzema left unmarked to head in crosses from the right, the first from Lucas Vazquez, the second from Rodrygo.
On neither occasion was there any pressure on the ball, or any real sense of defensive urgency. Perhaps it would have been different had Alassane Plea not dinked a one-on-one wide with the score at 1-0. The 27-year-old forward has been excellent this season, but he will also recall the 1-v-1 he missed with Gladbach 2-0 up in the first game against Madrid.
In the end, this was a wholly emphatic win. Benzema hit the woodwork and Yann Sommer made a string of fine saves. It was 2-0 going on five or six. But this wasn’t just about Gladbach being disappointing. It was also about Madrid clicking back into gear. Sergio Ramos was back at the heart of defense, while Zidane went back to the familiar midfield three of Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos. At some point that is going to stop being the answer, but not yet.
Gladbach still went through, as the other game in the group, between Inter and Shakhtar finished goalless, a denouement Gladbach’s players watched anxiously on a smartphone on the pitch in Madrid. If there had been a winner in that game, it would have gone through at Gladbach’s expense.
Inter had kept its hopes of qualification alive by beating Gladbach 3-2 last week, and it had much the better of this game. But as so often of late, it simply couldn’t score. Lautaro Martinez hit the bar, Romelu Lukaku had a header brilliantly tipped over by 19-year-old Anatoliy Trubin, who made a string of other saves, and Alexis Sanchez had a late goal-bound header cannon to safety off Lukaku.
However unfortunate it may have been, this was the third time in five attempts that an Antonio Conte side has been eliminated. Given how repeatedly fortune was against Inter this season, how in both games against Shakhtar it pounded away and couldn’t score, it would seem absurd to find much fault with Conte this time, but this is a worrying pattern.
Atletico, meanwhile, only had to avoid defeat at Salzburg to make it through to the last 16, but La Liga's current leader achieved far more than that. Despite Salzburg's initiative, Atleti took the lead seven minutes before halftime, as Mario Hermoso glanced in a Yannick Carrasco free kick, his first goal for the club.
This was a typical Atletico performance, soaking up pressure before Carrasco sealed the win with a crisp volley in the counter.
Inter out, Shakhtar in the Europa League and Gladbach and the two Madrid sides through to the knockout rounds. Perhaps in the end the group tables weren’t hugely surprising, but at least this season some of the giants have been made to work for their progress.