“When they start roaring, it’s so tough… they start believing in themselves and you start doubting yourself.”
That’s how Real Sociedad midfielder Mikel Merino described his visit to the Bernabeu at the weekend.
La Real had started in a confident mood and took the lead in the 10th minute, but soon enough Carlo Ancelotti’s side showed why they’re at the top of the league.
Eduardo Camavinga and Luka Modric – the former born the same year Modric began his professional career at Dinamo Zagreb – scored long-range howitzers to put Madrid ahead by half-time.
They were thunderbolts, but they weren’t from the blue. Madrid were playing brilliant football, putting the visitors under immense pressure, and the crowd responded in kind – or maybe it was the other way round.
We’ve seen that symbiotic relationship all too often at the Bernabeu over the years, especially on European nights, when they have something to prove.
Madrid eventually cruised to a 4-1 win agaisnt La Real, which put them eight points clear at the top of the La Liga table, and 15 clear of eternal rivals Barcelona and reigning champions Atletico. The league looks done – and come May, Ancelotti will be lifting the title trophy, just as he’s done in England, Germany, France and Italy.
But domestic honours have never been enough for Los Blancos, as the man in their dugout knows. He’s won the European Cup five times throughout his career, twice as a player and three times as a coach, including Madrid’s fabled Decima in 2014.
• • • •
• • • •
Yet for all his success, there is no such thing as Ancelottismo. Unlike Jurgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola or Diego Simeone, he will leave little imprint on how the game is played. Leave that to the philosophers. Don Carlo’s philosophy is to win.
That’s why he’s the perfect fit for a club that prides itself on winning above all else: ‘Leave aesthetic dogma to Barcelona and count our European Cups’. Thirteen.
“Were Madrid superior to PSG? For me, no, but they don’t care if they are superior, if they dominate or are dominated,” Barcelona’s current boss Xavi Hernandez said after Madrid knocked Paris Saint-Germain out of the Champions League, en route to winning the trophy for a third successive time, in 2018.
“Their philosophy is simply to win. That is what makes them so difficult to play against in the Bernabeu.”
It was a backhanded compliment, but a compliment nonetheless, and eerily prescient for the Madrid-PSG rematch four years later.
There were no shortage of column inches dedicated to Madrid’s demise after the first leg in Paris, questioning why Kylian Mbappe would want to want to leave a superforce in European football for a sinking ship.
In truth, Madrid had barely laid a glove on PSG in Paris. They were limp and lifeless, looking satisfied to escape with a clean sheet – which was denied after a moment of brilliance from Mbappe in injury-time gave the Parisiens a much-deserved 1-0 victory on the night.
Mbappe doubling their aggregate lead at the Bernabeu adhered to footballing logic. By the hour mark in Madrid, the forward had had a further two goals ruled out for offside, and PSG could and perhaps should have been out of sight.
So why on earth would the world’s best player want to leave PSG for Madrid?
The brutally honest answer is that Madrid are winners and PSG are not. Since the Qatari takeover in 2011, and billions pumped in, Madrid have won the competition four times. PSG haven’t once, and have often exited in abject humiliation.
• • • •
• • • •
From Madrid’s remontada to Paris’s capitulation, we’ve all read this script before. The difference between the two sides was painted in glorious 4K from minute sixty to minute ninety.
Immediately after Madrid’s league win at the weekend, everyone at the club turned their attention to their European task. The local sports dailies inevitably started rattling on about the spirit of Juanito.
You might well have questioned what all the fuss was about as Ancelotti’s side produced another lacklustre display for the opening hour of the match, the home crowd dulled by Mbappe’s goal.
Yet every cliche about Madrid’s fighting spirit and PSG’s soft underbelly was brought to life when Karim Benzema bullied Gianluigi Donnarumma to rob the ball back for his side and stick it in the back of the net seconds later.
Just as Merino had described at the weekend, the Bernabeu started to roar, Madrid started to believe, and PSG started to doubt themselves.
Just three of the players that started Madrid’s 2014 Champions League final victory against Atletico remained – Dani Carvajal, who was taken off on a booking at 1-1, Modric and Benzema.
Gone was Cristiano Ronaldo, Madrid and Europe’s all-time top scorer. Gone was Iker Casillas, the experienced captain. Gone was Sergio Ramos, the beating heart of La Decima.
Still, that winning spirit remained, living on through Madrid’s best two players against PSG.
Benzema became the oldest player to score a Champions League hat-trick, with three finishes that ranged from good to great, but it was Modric provided the spark from midfield.
That’s Modric, who turns 37 in September. Modric, only a year younger than Andres Iniesta, still bossing it on the European stage.
The mix of energy and guile with which he dribbled from deep in his own half in the build-up to Benzema’s second goal – before a trademark perfectly-weighted through-ball out wide to Vinicius – epitomised a player that continues to beggar belief.
Find ‘the spirit of Juanito’ in a Real Madrid encyclopedia and it should come alongside the image of a veteran Modric shaking off Neymar and Idrissa Gueye.
Of course, Modric claimed the assist, receiving the ball back from Vinicius on the edge of the PSG penalty area before a delightfully delicate pass made it through Presnel Kimpembe’s boots and onto the toes of Benzema.
Luka Modrić is 36-years-old 🍷 pic.twitter.com/xasULL0k5a
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) March 10, 2022
The ball was back in play for all of 12 seconds before Benzema completed his hat-trick.
Sniffing blood, Modric was one of the players straight onto punch-drunk PSG as they kicked off again. They instantly regained possession and within barely an instant Madrid’s remontada was complete.
The Croatian demonstrated all his technical brilliance for the second goal. But he was also humble enough to graft, throwing his body at the opposition in order to get the ball back.
If PSG want to stop being losers and finally start being winners, there’s a lesson to learn from one of European football’s all-time greats.
Luka Modric is a player with all the talent in the world, yet he’s never forgotten the value of hard work.
In one dizzyingly glorious minute, he embodied Real Madrid’s winning spirit and shone a light on why PSG were left eating their dust.