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The anatomy of a Real Madrid remontada

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SANTIAGO BERNABEU, MADRID — By 2016, the son of one of the men most synonymous with Real Madrid comebacks had just about had enough of all the carry-on.

“Leave my father in peace, every time you mention his name to make a comeback, we lose,” Roberto, the offspring of Madrid hero Juanito, tweeted after recently-appointed head coach Zinedine Zidane and his players slipped to a 2-0 first-leg defeat at Wolfsburg.

Former Spain forward Juanito starred in the great Madrid teams of the 1980s alongside the likes of Jorge Valdano and Emiliano Butragueno who, much like the current vintage, never seemed to know when they were beaten.

A tenacious performer who, for better or worse, generally pushed everything to the limit (see his shocking 1987 assault on Bayern Munich’s Lothar Matthaus for the regrettable side of that coin), Juanito embodied Madrid’s desire to fight to the end and claimed he would have been an ultra on the terraces had he not been a player.

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“Ninety minutes in the Bernabeu is a very long time,” Juanito famously warned Inter Milan after the Serie A side claimed a 2-0 win in the first leg of the 1984/85 UEFA Cup semi-final at San Siro.

It certainly is a long time at Madrid’s famous home ground. Just ask Bayern Munich, who were 1-0 up heading into the 88th minute of Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League semifinal.

After Juanito put Inter on notice, Madrid promptly won 3-0 and lifted the trophy in the final. They did it again the following year, losing 3-1 in Italy before beating Inter 5-1 after extra-time. By that point, it had become a ridiculous habit. 

In the 1985/86 round of 16, Borussia Monchengladbach walloped Los Blancos 5-1 but lost 4-0 at the Bernabeu to bow out on away goals. At the same stage the season prior, Anderlecht won 3-0 against Madrid before enduring a 6-1 hammering in the return.

These logic-defying feats came to be attributed to the “Spirit of Juanito”, something Madridistas celebrated even more poignantly after the player’s tragic death in a car crash in 1992.

But by the time his son Roberto felt compelled to speak out, Madrid’s reputation for remontadas had become somewhat tenuous.

In 2012/13, 4-1 down to Jurgen Klopp’s rampant Borussia Dortmund in the semi-finals of the Champions League, Jose Mourinho’s Madrid failed to turn things around despite a whole manner of talk to the contrary.

Indeed, in the Champions League era, Madrid had been more likely to lose from a winning position than pull off a comeback.

Such turnarounds were a fading memory of decades past when Roberto made his plea and Madrid faced up to another Bundesliga-crafted exit.

In the home leg of the 2013/14 quarter-final against Wolfsburg, Cristiano Ronaldo rattled home a hat-trick, and a new era of Madrid being driven by a heady combination of self-belief, skill and apparent destiny began.

There were no other comebacks comparable to the Wolfsburg quarter-final under Zidane, but it set in motion a remarkable run of three consecutive Champions League triumphs at a time when Madrid could rarely, if ever, be considered the elite side in Europe.

They simply never knew when they were beaten.

Carlo Ancelotti’s second spell at the helm has reacquainted Madrid with their taste for the fantastical.

In 2021/22, inspired by the indomitable Karim Benzema, they performed like a sort of comic book superhero version of Real Madrid.

In the last 16 against Paris Saint-Germain, they were outplayed for three quarters of the tie and 2-0 down on aggregate before Benzema produced a brilliant hat-trick.

An even better treble from the French centre-forward had Madrid 3-1 up and cruising against Chelsea in the quarter-finals. But they apparently like acts of escapology so much that they decided to engineer one.

Ninety minutes at the Bernabeu was turning into a very long time for Ancelotti’s men as the Premier League side completely dominated and established a 3-0 lead. Then Rodrygo volleyed in a pass from the gods by Luka Modric and Benzema popped up in the additional period to prove 120 minutes at the Bernabeu is even longer.

There was an even more outlandish heist in the semifinals against Manchester City. Madrid were largely outplayed in the first leg, but a Benzema brace and a Vinicius Junior solo goal kept them in touch at 4-3. heading into stoppage time at the Bernabeu, Riyad Mahrez had scored the only goal of the game to extend the Premier League champions’ aggregate advantage.

No problem. Substitute Rodrygo scored twice in the space of a stoppage-time minute to force the additional period when a Benzema penalty settled matters.

Madrid beat another English team in the final, seeing off Liverpool 1-0 in Paris, but their jousts with City have defined recent seasons. A 4-0 second-leg win in Manchester earned Pep Guardiola’s men a measure of revenge in the 2023 semifinals en route to glory. In 2024, Madrid hung in doggedly to triumph on the same ground on penalties.

That set up the Bayern semifinal and gave Joselu the chance to become Juanito’s most unlikely heir yet in this incredible story that continues to spawn fresh chapters.

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