"Things have happened that no one could possibly imagine," Carlo Ancelotti said, but you might have heard that one before. You might have seen something a little like this too: last time, for a start. And the time before that. Real Madrid's players certainly had, that very morning.
At the end of another night so ludicrous that in the middle of the madness with the match still going on and tie not yet won Marcelo grabbed his manager and actually started laughing, Ancelotti admitted that he had shown the squad a video depicting Madrid’s eight – eight! – comebacks. And that’s just this season.
At the end, he told them there was one missing.
The best one of all. There were 39 seconds left and Real Madrid needed to score twice or they were out, halted at the gates of the final, their luck running out at last. Eighty-eight seconds later they had done, collective madness taking everyone. Somehow, they had forced extra time; soon, they had the winner, which by then you knew they would. Look in the top corner of your screen. It had shown 89:20 RMA 0 – 1 MCI (3-5). Look again and it showed: 94.13 RMA 3 – 1 MCI (6-5). And it had taken a few seconds to update the score.
“Incredible, isn’t it?” Casemiro said.
That’s one word for it, yeah. And one word was all Thibaut Courtois had, or so he said: “Madrid,” he replied when asked whether he could explain it. Mostly, they couldn’t. Ancelotti shrugged and smiled. “The greatness of this club,” he said. Kroos described the team as a “joke”. Rodrygo said: “We were dead… and then what happened, happened.”
What happened was the most ridiculous resurrection of them all: even more implausible, the margins finer, the race against the clock more frantic, like they were watching that video back again only on fast-forward, everything flashing by. And when it came there was something in that idea: the impact of this, the inception too, was not just about what happened on Wednesday but what had happened on those other nights. It was the last in a crescendo of comebacks, each feeding off the last, miracle of miracles. The culmination of the most incredible run to a European Cup final ever, layer upon layer.
“One of these days my heart will stop,” Emilio Butragueño said after. The front of Marca demanded that God come down from heaven to explain this. “The paranormal has become normal,” AS’s headline ran. Presented with that idea, Ancelotti conceded: “Something strange has happened.”
Something familiar too. Groundhog Day, The Never Ending Story. Ctrl C, ctrl V. They had done it to Paris Saint-Germain. They had done it to Chelsea. And now they had done it to Manchester City. The champions of France, Europe and England all eliminated at the Bernabéu. Just don't ask them to work out how. This is just what they do.
They had beaten the Italian champions too. This season, Madrid's Champions League campaign began with an 89th-minute winner against Internazionale. In the next game they were beaten by the Moldovan side Sheriff, source of a million memes. Shot down, but up again and now in the final, like this.
Better this way, their way. This is the club that rescued the 2014 European Cup against Atlético with a 93rd-minute equaliser, that constructed a legend, an identity around comebacks, history invited to play. The team that have made the impossible feel inevitable, embracing the chaos.
Which doesn’t necessarily make it easier to understand. Or to analyse. But sometimes it is better for everyone else to embrace the chaos too. Don’t try to get it or explain it. There will be time for analysis, for breaking it all down, trying to make sense of it. For sweeping conclusions too. This was a time to live it, marvel in the madness, the football, bloody hell.
Against PSG they had come down from 1-0 down, 2-0 on aggregate to win 3-2, gifted a way back and scoring twice in a minute, three in quarter of an hour. Against Chelsea, they had gone from 3-0 down on the night, 4-3 down on aggregate, with 10 minutes left, to win 5-4 on aggregate. It had been extraordinary that they were even standing, but this is the team you have to kill a hundred times. If not, know that they’re coming for you.
In Manchester Real Madrid were beaten 4-3, but celebrated that almost as a victory, given how overrun they had been, aware that the difference could have been far greater
There may be a case for saying that of the 12 halves of normal time against PSG, Chelsea and City, Madrid were the better side in just one – the first half in London – but they’re the only one left.
In Paris, PSG had taken 23 shots, Madrid three. It was 8-0 in shots on target, but only 1-0 on the scoreboard. In Madrid, Kylian Mbappé had the ball in the net three times, twice ruled out, and the place had been resigned to defeat, the first whistles appearing, before David Alaba and Éder Militão dived into a tackle that was a bugle call and Gianluigi Donnarumma's dreadful error ignited everything.
Against Chelsea, they had faced 28 shots at the Bernabéu. Even at Stamford Bridge they had faced 20 shots, clear chances wasted by Chelsea. An error from Édouard Mendy had given them the third goal.
In Manchester Real Madrid faced 16 shots. They were beaten 4-3, but celebrated that almost as a victory, given how overrun they had been, aware that the difference could have been far greater; rarely can City have felt more like they had lost a game that they had won.
They knew. Madrid were still there. But then City scored at the Bernabéu. “We were so close,” Pep Guardiola said, and they really were. Into the last minute, Madrid needed two. At that point, a second goal for City felt closer than a first for Madrid.
Outside, TV cameras interviewed the stupidest person on the planet. A Madrid fan who had decided to leave early heard the roar from inside while he was talking. “We’ve come back, we’ve come back!” he shouted, leaping about celebrating. There’s something about that “we” that stuck in the throat. He wasn’t alone, some fans turning and trying to get back in. Had they learned nothing? Do they not know this team they support? Of course you have come back, you fool.
City had led from 1:32 in the first leg until 90:50 in the second. It was hard to fathom, but this was a fate everyone foresaw. Except, it had reached the point where even the believers were having a hard time believing. This was beyond even Madrid. When Jack Grealish’s shot went just past the post, it didn’t really feel like it mattered all that much.
Oh, ye of little faith. Oh, it mattered. It was everything, as it turned out. Courtois' studs had diverted it wide. Not a boot: a stud, a measure of how fine the margin was, another incredible save keeping them alive. Ferland Mendy cleared off the line, the still photo of it a portrait of some sort of divine intervention. It wasn't just that he got there but that Phil Foden, inches from the line, the ball actually touching him, didn't. It was the 87th minute and it was a miracle, but a bigger one was coming now.
“That feeling that happens in football sometimes, that has happened in history, when you are leading but you’re being dominated: that didn’t happen to us,” the City manager said. “We did not feel like we were under siege. And then they found the goal. Then one minute later, they found another. They have done it lots of times in their history, so it could happen to us.”
When the first went in, 70,000 people reached out and touched faith. This could actually happen. Could happen? Is happening. All those other times, all those tales, made it more likely: it is something self-perpetuating, an identity built to be lived up to, a history to emulate, and it is felt by both teams. “They know anything can happen here,” Courtois said.
There wasn’t that much City clearly got wrong – although restarting quickly and giving the ball back to Madrid to allow them to score a second goal 88 seconds after the first was a dreadful error – but they had been unable to resist. There was something mystical at play; some fate, some force, that means that the more you fight it, the more inevitable it becomes. Or maybe it’s more simple than that: stuff happens.
"Magic doesn't begin to cover it," Jorge Valdano said. "Another mad night," Federico Valverde called it. "I think God looked at me and said: 'Today is your day,'" Rodrygo suggested. "No one, no one thought we would play the final, and we're there," Ancelotti said.
Butragueño said: “In the directors’ box, people were saying it’s incredible and you say: ‘Yeah, but we’re Real Madrid and it’s happened lots of times.’” The players knew: they had seen the video that proves it. – Guardia