Toni Kroos points the way for Real Madrid and shows their Champions League mastery

The irreplaceable German midfielder refused to allow Bayern Munich to escape with the game – and his control kept Madrid in the tie

Real Madrid's German midfielder Toni Kroos. Photograph: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty

Thomas Tuchel had warned that you don’t see Real Madrid’s goals coming, so Toni Kroos helpfully pointed it out, but still Bayern Munich couldn’t stop it. There are times, the German coach had said on the eve of this most classic of European confrontations, when you watch their games, analysing them closely, and everything seems to be under control, when the 14-time winners appear outnumbered and there’s nothing going on, no danger, nothing to fear, and so, feeling safe, you press play again. And then, bang, five, 10 seconds pass and the ball is in your net.

Which is when you rewind and try to work out where it all began. Here, control in hand, he could actually pinpoint the exact second his defence ripped in half. It began, Madrid began, in the mind and at the feet of Kroos: right there in the centre of the screen, strolling across the midfield, seemingly going nowhere, looking left and hoping that everyone else except Vinícius Júnior would look there too, following his eyes not his fingers. Suddenly he stuck out an arm, signalled to the vast pathway that had opened and the Brazilian set off into it. A gentle turn of the foot and the ball followed; Vinícius was through beyond Kim Min-jae.

The finish was clean but, Vinícius insisted afterwards, it had been a gift from Kroos that had done it and he had run straight to his teammate and pointed back. “We know each other so well,” he noted when the final whistle went on a 2-2 draw that gives Madrid a slender advantage they didn’t look like having at that early stage. “Toni,” he said, “always does it easy things.” He always makes them look like easy things, anyway. Twenty-four minutes had gone and it was their first shot; by then Bayern had already had seven.

Which was pretty much what Tuchel had said could happen, what Madrid do. In the Champions League since 2010-11 they have had fewer shots than their opponents 25 times and lost only nine and they have outperformed their xG in 24 knockout games. They know that, and so do opponents.


Is it possible to feel the icy grip of fatalism after only 39 seconds? Or five minutes and 46 seconds? Or six minutes and 51? Or eight and 30? Against Madrid it probably is – those were the exact times in which Bayern had their first four shots, the earliest from Leroy Sané, left one on one by Harry Kane – and a sense of deja vu crept in when none were taken.

With Bayern insisting, Jamal Musiala, Kane and Thomas Müller all involved, Madrid could not find a way out, until Kroos stepped forward. It was not just the pass, although that was what really put them back into the game, it was the determination to take control, the coldness to execute it, the respect he imposes, like he has his own personal patch of grass others are not allowed to tread on. By half-time, just one pass had gone awry. When he withdrew, he had completed 79 of 82. No one had more.

The most important had given Madrid the lead and lifeline at a stage when they were being overrun again – a wonderfully weighted delivery if also, in truth, one facilitated by Bayern and Kim in particular. Bayern did not feel the fatalism, taking a lead that Madrid had to respond to again. It was Vinícius who had the most decisive contribution, with two goals and the “assist” that led to the penalty for the second.

But Kroos who had refused to allow the game to escape them against the side he represented during eight years, a reminder that for all the mystique, the fortune and heroism, there’s something else at play here: a mastery. Something that sometimes, like the boots he has worn for 13 years now, forcing his brand to craft these tools just for him, that looks out of fashion.

So much so in fact, that Kroos might not have been here at all and may yet not be back. When Madrid were knocked out last year, some concluded that his time, and that of Luka Modric, was coming to an end: there was a desire to accelerate the transition, Carlo Ancelotti requesting understanding from his senior players. Kroos did not begin the season in the starting XI. He came to contemplate retirement, he still is: he has two months on his contract and has not said if he will stay, to which there is only one response: please. He is, the coach says now, “irreplaceable”, even when he doesn’t play.

Here he did, like no one else. In a Champions League semi-final, surrounded by some of the best there are: by Jude Bellingham and Vinícius, Musiala and Kane. And as if it was no big deal. “It’s is quite normal, it’s nothing new; we wanted to control the game a bit better and he does that like no one else,” Ancelotti said. He may not run, but that’s what Fede Valverde, Eduardo Camavinga, Aurélien Tchouaméni are for and boy can he pass. No one in this competition completes a higher percentage, the man that Juan Román Riquelme said was the closest thing football has to Roger Federer: “He can go out, play, and go home again not even needing to bath: he doesn’t sweat, doesn’t get dirty, doesn’t need to throw himself down.” He just needs to point the way, right there on the screen, one man seeing what Bayern Munich could not. - Guardian