MADRID (AFP) – “Real Madrid are still alive,” said Karim Benzema, the 34-year-old striker who scored a second-half hat-trick as Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) again self-destructed in the Champions League knockout stages.
PSG were cruising at 2-0 up on aggregate after Kylian Mbappe’s 39th-minute strike.
For an hour the Paris club looked assured of a last-eight berth, but Benzema turned the tie on its head with three goals in 17 minutes as Real swept to a 3-1 win and 3-2 aggregate triumph.
Even by PSG’s standards, this was an epic collapse, five years to the day since Barcelona overturned a 4-0 last-16 first-leg deficit against them by winning 6-1 at Camp Nou.
Lionel Messi and Neymar were in Barcelona colours that day, but both were on the receiving end this time, unable to rid PSG of their habit of crumbling when it matters most.
Madrid’s comeback may not have matched that night in Barcelona for scale or drama – Benzema’s winner came in the 78th minute not the 95th and Madrid came from two behind, not four – but the impact might be greater.
In the year of the controversial World Cup in Qatar, Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe were stitched together with limitless resources from the oil-rich Gulf state to win the Champions League, not crash out in the last 16.
Defeat throws Mauricio Pochettino’s future as coach into serious doubt, raises further questions about Messi’s departure from Barca and prolongs the Qatari-owned club’s wait for that elusive European crown, despite more than a billion euros splurged on transfers.
“We have not managed our emotions well and we left ourselves too exposed,” said Pochettino.
Mbappe took a step closer to leaving. The 23-year-old, out of contract in the summer, was at his scintillating best at his prospective new Santiago Bernabeu home, where the Madrid fans applauded his name.
Mbappe’s sales pitch, if he needed one, was perfect. He showed why he is regarded as the best player in the world at the moment, while Madrid in return confirmed they are a moreserious European title-winning prospect than PSG.
When Zinedine Zidane led Real Madrid to Champions League victory in 2018, they enjoyed a run of similar great escapes in the knock-out stage, and few believed they could win the trophy then either.
Doubts linger around Carlo Ancelotti’s side at the very highest level. For the entirety of the first leg in Paris and for 60 minutes of the second, Madrid were inferior to PSG, who made them look slow, heavy-legged and like a team whose core are in their mid-thirties.
It is possible the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea or Bayern Munich would do the same, but without the late capitulation.
And yet this is not the first time Madrid have proven themselves to be great survivors on the European stage. Through experience, belief and sheer force of will, Real Madrid always tend to go further than they should.
“We have suffered a lot, but we have endured. After (our) first goal there was only one team on the pitch,” said Ancelotti.
In Benzema, they have one of the world’s classiest strikers, an all-rounder getting better with age who sent a message that he wants to play with, not instead of, his fellow Frenchman Mbappe if he arrives in Madrid.
Luka Modric was sensational again, stepping up in the second half, the highlight of which was his contribution to Benzema’s second goal with an exquisite reverse pass.
Thibaut Courtois, at 29 among the best goalkeepers on the planet, prevented Mbappe from scoring at least twice more. Real Madrid, though, still lack the mobility and dynamism of Bayern and the Premier League’s leading lights. Saving up for Mbappe for the last three years has seen to that.
And while Ancelotti is an expert man manager, he is not a visionary coach in the mould of Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp or Julian Nagelsmann, all of whom are currently at the forefront of the game’s tactical thinking.
Yet Real Madrid remain alive. They came back to beat PSG with the old instincts kicking in and the fans singing at the end: “This is how we win.” It was hard to disagree.