Real Madrid gunning for back-to-back titles
Defending champs survive Atletico’s spirited charge
MADRID Defending champion Real Madrid withstood an early onslaught by Atletico Madrid to reach a third Champions League final in four years despite a 2-1 loss to its city rival on Wednesday.
Atletico, which trailed 3-0 after the first leg, scored twice in the first 16 minutes at the Vicente Calderon Stadium to move within a goal of sending the semifinal second leg into extra time. But Francisco “Isco” Alarcon netted a crucial away goal for Real Madrid before halftime to secure a 4-2 victory on aggregate and a spot in the final against Juventus on June 3 in Cardiff.
“We knew we were going to suffer, but we are extremely happy to have made it to the final,” Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said.
“It’s been a very long road and it hasn’t been easy. And to do it for the second year in a row, we need to congratulate everyone in this club.”
Madrid will try to become the first team to win back-to-back titles since the competition’s new format was created in 1992. Madrid will be the first team to have a chance to defend its title since Manchester United made it to consecutive finals in 2008-09.
Atletico ends its Champions League campaign without a shot at the title and with its fourth straight elimination to its powerful Spanish rival. Madrid beat Atletico in the final last year and in 2014, and also eliminated the crosstown opponent in the quarter-finals in 2015.
Atletico kept its hopes alive on Wednesday by scoring two early goals to ignite the crowd at the packed Calderon.
Saul Niguez netted the first goal with a header off a corner in the 12th minute, and Antoine Griezmann added to the lead four minutes later by converting a penalty kick after Fernando Torres was fouled by defender Raphael Varane inside the area.
Griezmann, who had missed a penalty kick in last year’s final against Madrid, slipped slightly just as he was taking the shot, and goalkeeper Keylor Navas got his hand to the ball but was not able to fully deflect it.
“They started strongly but eventually we were able to find our game,” Zidane said.
“In the second half we were much better.”
The goals left Atletico only one away from sending the match into extra time, but Diego Simeone’s team wasn’t able to keep pressuring as it did in the first minutes of the game.
The match was even when Karim Benzema came up with a spectacular move to set up Isco’s goal.
The French striker was surrounded by three Atletico defenders by the end line, but found a way to get past all of them with a pair of quick touches. He sped into the area and sent a backward pass to Toni Kroos, whose shot was initially saved by goalkeeper Jan Oblak, but Isco was nearby and picked up the rebound to easily score from close range.
“After the game I asked Benzema how he was able to do that, but he didn’t know either,” Zidane said.
The goal all but ended Atletico’s hopes of advancing and the second half was played at a much calmer pace, with few significant scoring opportunities for both teams.
“This performance was the least that we could have done,” Atletico captain Gabi said. “I thought we were excellent in the first half. A moment of genius from Benzema ended our dream, but we never stopped fighting and I’m proud of everyone.”
Navas had two make two difficult consecutive saves in the 66th on a shot by Yannick Carrasco and a header by Kevin Gameiro, and Cristiano Ronaldo had a goal disallowed for offside in the 69th.
It was a tense match early on, with players from both teams trying to pressure the referee and complaining with each other.
Atletico, the third force in Spanish soccer behind Madrid and Barcelona, was trying to win its first title and avenge the heartbreaking losses to Madrid in a penalty shootout last year and after extra time in 2014. Atletico also lost the final in 1974 to Bayern Munich.
Before the game, Atletico fans displayed huge banners that read, “proud not to be like you,” a response to Madrid’s message before the first leg. The banners at the Bernabeu last week read “tell me how it feels,” along with an image of the Champions League trophy and the words “Milan” and “Lisbon,” the cities which hosted the finals where Madrid beat Atletico in 2014 and 2016.
Atletico was upset with those banners and had been provoking Madrid in the days before Wednesday’s game. The club sent a series of tweets that praised its fans for having unconditional love for the team, despite the results, accompanied by the hashtag “they can’t understand.”
The Atletico crowd stayed cheering their team long after the final whistle. The players returned from the changing rooms several minutes after the game to greet the fans. Coach Simeone was loudly cheered. He was still asking for the crowd’s support in second-half stoppage time.
Madrid players also returned to thanks their own supporters, and many Atletico fans threw objects toward them.
It was the final European game at the Calderon before Atletico moves into a new venue next season.
Real Madrid’s Danilo, left, directs the ball away from Atletico’s Yannick Carrasco during their Champions League semifinal second-leg match on Wednesday at the Vicente Calderon Stadium. Madrid moves on to face Juventus in the final despite the 2-1 loss...