Madrid's comeback built on character, grit of Zidane, Ronaldo and Marcelo
MADRID -- I have an image in my mind, one that began to take shape in the advanced stages of the second half of this extraordinary match in which Paris Saint-Germain continued their Spanish nightmare.
They've now lost their past two knockout ties against La Liga's behemoths on a 9-2 aggregate, despite being in control of both games with a mere handful of minutes left on each occasion. If you throw in the slapping the Parisians took in Munich at the end of their group campaign, roundly thumped 3-1, somebody might want to call Houston and suggest that we have a problem here.
Notwithstanding that, my image is of Real Betis, Barcelona, Celta Vigo, Villarreal and Levante fans huddled around their respective television sets giggling in anticipation as the Bernabeu clock ticked past 80 minutes. Giggling in anticipation of what they thought, for sure, would be PSG applying the killer blow to Real Madrid in the dying minutes, just as each of their teams had done this season.
In case the intoxicating scoreline has fogged your memory: As that 80th minute ticked past, the immediate preceding moments had seen a left-wing cross fizz past Madrid's gaping goal with neither Kylian Mbappe nor Dani Alves, sliding in at the back post, able to nick it home. Applying a boot lace or even a coat of boot polish to the ball (if such stuff still exists) would have nudged it into Keylor Navas' net -- and nudged PSG into a commanding position.
Seconds later, a chance pinballed crazily around Madrid's penalty box until Presnel Kimpembe snap-volleyed it toward the net from about 2 metres out. At which point Sergio Ramos did what Sergio Ramos does.
That repertoire of ridiculousness can contain last-minute equalisers in the Champions League final when Atletico Madrid had one hand and four fingers wrapped around the trophy, and it can contain a splurge of red cards dotted around his La Liga career that makes it looks as if it has been sponsored by Jackson Pollock -- or a company marketing an antidote to measles.
In this instance, it was goal-defying brilliance. His block turned the tide.
Just at that moment, for your information, the ultra-supportive and sometimes fawning Madrid football daily Marca were writing, "Madrid's playing horribly right now. They're all over the place and can't keep the ball."
I strongly believe that the assorted fans of Betis, Levante, Villarreal, et al., wouldn't have been thinking of Ramos' mega moment as game-changing. Quite the reverse. More like a signal that PSG were bound to score soon.
During Madrid's flaccid defence of their domestic title, Betis defeated them with a 90th-minute goal, Barcelona added garnish to a Clasico win in the 90th minute, Maxi Gomez rescued a point for Celta with eight minutes left, Pablo Fornals earned Villarreal their only win at the Bernabeu in the 87th minute, and less than a fortnight ago, Giampaolo Pazzini's goal with about 50 seconds left gave Levante a 2-2 draw.
What do Zinedine Zidane's World, European and Spanish champions do? They concede late goals to their huge embarrassment -- this season at least.
Not on this night.
Whether he actually uttered it or not, Napoleon is credited with admitting that, in battle, he preferred a lucky general to a good one. So it was with the Frenchman on the Spanish side of this football skirmish.
Zidane chose badly in keeping faith with Karim Benzema. One good shot on goal the entire game, when added to his lackadaisical passing and inability to do what was once his Madrid trademark (making Cristiano Ronaldo twice the striker by working like his "domestique", as French cycling terminology has it) certainly didn't justify Benzema starting ahead of Gareth Bale.
The fact that he was still on the pitch well after the hour mark, well, that was brute stubbornness from his countryman and mentor.
Zidane could evidently see, too, that Casemiro was a shadow of himself. Just as he's been since mid-August.
Not stemming the flow when Mbappe or Neymar dropped into midfield, not robbing possession sufficiently, being caught upfield diving into challenges that opened the floodgates for Unai Emery's team. Casemiro was playing like the rough diamond who was shipped out to Porto on loan, not like the world-class defensive midfielder he has proven to be since then.
Eventually, Zidane got it right by taking the Brazilian off. But, boy, did he roll the dice late, late, late.
Then, Modric. Yes, he had a good game. Yes, he was a beacon of effort and calm when the storm hatches needed to be battened down.
He worked for his team, he showed for the ball, and very often he used it well. But to ask him to patrol Neymar down PSG's left, to ask him to spring back to double up with Nacho and then sprint forward to give intelligence and know-how to Madrid's creativity, that was placing a gigantic burden on a man seven months off his 33rd birthday.
Look back at PSG's goal if you're not convinced. When Alves' cross rebounds off Nacho's block, who's around the ball?
Rabiot scores because he gets there first and his technique is good. But if you watch, he's on the move, anticipating. Modric and Isco start from the same part of the pitch as he when Alves crosses, but they are flat-footed. They are not alert mentally.
Just as when rebounds from Navas' saves against Villarreal and Levante were converted by opponents because Madrid's players either don't chase back or don't react, PSG wanted their goal more than Madrid wanted, or were able, to defend against it.
So to Napoleon's infamous phrase.
Zidane was lucky that by the time he removed Benzema, followed by Casemiro and Isco, his Champions League specialists were still open for business.
But before people shower all the praise on the admittedly exhilarating and wonderful Marco Asensio, it's vital to understand that both Bale and Lucas Vazquez changed the game before the baby-faced Mallorquin laid on goals for Ronaldo and Marcelo. Lucas allowed Modric to move infield, to play both centrally and higher up the pitch.
Whose pass was it that sent Asensio scampering into the penalty box to square for Ronaldo's 2-1 goal? It was the 32-year-old Croatian international prompting his young teammate with a finely timed pass that opened up PSG.
Who was it to Modric's right, stretching the PSG defence and not allowing them to mob Ronaldo with numbers? It was Lucas.
Who was it who started the move for Madrid's second goal with a sensational flick over his head and over the head of PSG right-back Thomas Meunier? That's right, it was Bale, playing on his favoured side of the pitch -- the left -- because Lucas had added balance on his own preferred side of the pitch: the right.
So instead of Madrid haemorrhaging late goals, as they seem programmed to do domestically, there was an explosion of energy, creativity and efficacy in front of goal from Modric, Asensio, Marcelo and Ronaldo.
However, let's be factual. Zidane rode his luck. Ronaldo scored with his knee. Marcelo was exposed at the back (as per) during the match and hit that third goal off his shin.
Yet my abiding feeling isn't that luck was the dominant factor for any of the three of them. This was character, this was the stuff of people who dream big, this was the lottery numbers coming up for those who'll always prefer to gamble on winning than fear defeat.
On nights such as this, I'm minded to recall formative moments in the lives of great football people.
Great football people such as Zidane. Just because he, as a player, was as elegant as Rudolf Nureyev and spoke publicly about as often as a Trappist monk, most people assumed that his central strength was pure talent. That he was a bit delicate. Mistake. This is a guy who was brought up in a Fort Apache environment in his Marseille suburb of Castellane where you had to be handy with your fists from a young age. He's tough. Adversity such as this means nothing to him.
Great football people such as Ronaldo. I once spent time in Berlin talking to the then director of youth development at Sporting Lisbon, Paulo Leitao, who told me of the trial that Ronaldo underwent to make it into Sporting's academy.
"There were hundreds of kids, spread across a few wet, muddy pitches without grass. We had no method other than letting them all run about in search of the ball and guessing who were the good ones," Leitao told me. "We could very, very easily have missed him altogether. And when he emerged from our system, it was a credit to him more than to us."
You might view Ronaldo as preening, as in decline. Fine. But he made himself able to miss a couple of sitters on Wednesday, bury a high-tension penalty and then knee the ball home as some primordial instinct kicked in. He has made of the right stuff.
Great football people such as Marcelo. A bit too podgy, no sense of defensive responsibility. But a guy in love with his sport, someone who must chant "who dares wins" as he get up in the morning. A guy whose life was changed by his grandfather selling his beloved Volkswagen Beetle when Marcelo was a kid because the family couldn't afford the petrol money to shuttle him to training. Bus tickets were bought so that the apple of his granddad's eye could get to and from training, and the old man cried, openly, when the boy was about to give up because he wasn't making progress.
This night was made for special, complex, resourceful, daring, admirable men. Not just for appreciation of Asensio's brio. And in Zidane, Ronaldo and Marcelo, the reigning European champions have character, chutzpah, daring and grit galore.
The things that make us adore this king of sports. Football, bloody hell.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.