Carlo Ancelotti had said there was no need to go mad but no one was listening and why would they now? Suddenly dozens of men were sprinting down the touchline chasing Karim Benzema, the Frenchman disappearing under a pile of bodies in the corner while around them 60,000 people completely lost their heads. The noise was so loud ears bled and a chant went up. “Así gana el Madrí”, it ran: “that’s how Madrid win!”
How they won was barely believable, maybe even the most remarkable of an entire library of implausible tales at a club that specialises in astonishing comebacks, another epic European story written. “A club that has 13 European Cups doesn’t win by chance; it’s something deep in their guts,” Mauricio Pochettino had said and how appropriate that felt here. This is cannot be bought.
Madrid had been grateful to be only one goal down, scored by the exceptional Kylian Mbappé, who they trust will experience these nights with them one day, when a ridiculous mistake from Gianluigi Donnarumma had handed them a lifeline they clung to. Now two strikes in a minute gave Benzema a hat-trick that took him above Alfredo Di Stéfano in the all-time scoring charts and Madrid into the quarter-final.
There was something laughable about Madrid’s first and comic book about the second, 36-year-old Luka Modric running from almost his own area to PSG’s, pursued by blue shirts. There, via Vinícius, he played in Benzema to put Madrid into the lead here and level on aggregate. There hadn’t been time to digest that when Madrid scored the third, Benzema expertly steering home, pandemonium breaking out.
Digesting the rest of this will take even longer. That will be true in Madrid and in Paris, left with another failure to contemplate. A failure that, for all its implacable logic given the nature of the club, had been unthinkable for much of a match that Mbappé graced. At its end, Madrid’s players slipped to their knees, history made.
It didn’t need to be like this but it was much better this way. Ancelotti’s suggestion that they needn’t go mad because they only needed one was rational enough but there was little rational about this, and as it turned out they needed three. They got them all in a second half that shook the foundations here, obliterating everything seen in the first, when a frustrated flatness had taken hold.
If Madrid started on the front foot, Vinícius dashing up the left three times in 10 minutes, it had not lasted long. One of those runs had ended with PSG break that concluded with Mbappé drawing a save from Thibaut Courtois which would be just the first of many and Madrid’s early energy dissipated. That was doubly disappointing because when they did occasionally succeed in pressing, PSG looked decidedly uneasy.
Mostly though, the visitors looked comfortable, taking control – and often at walking pace, until Mbappé accelerated. He and Neymar soon brought saves from Courtois, anxious whistles ringing out as the visitors’ possession became monotonous.
Ancelotti had talked about just needing to be in the game, which at this point felt like the best Madrid could aspire to and a temporary state anyway, but which would be revealed as words of wisdom. From nowhere Benzema bent a sensational shot past the post, via Donnarumma’s fingers. Two more warnings came with Benzema headers and there was a nervousness to PSG defensively, a propensity to give the ball away in compromising positions that hinted at the price they would later pay, Ancelotti’s point proven.
Still, what eventually unfolded seemed a world away. A lovely exchange between Lionel Messi and Neymar followed before Mbappé scored only for Nuno Mendes to be ruled offside. PSG did then get the lead when Neymar’s quick ball released Mbappé. Departing from his own half, he reached the edge of the area, braked, looked Courtois in the eye, and finished with an apparent ease that was almost insulting.
Madrid had more of the ball now, rebelling, and soon had the goal that transformed this place, Donnarumma’s gift giving them a way back. Caught by Benzema, he lost possession virtually on his line. Vinícius collected and rolled to Benzema to score. A minute later, Benzema headed just wide and the Bernabéu erupted, believing this could actually happen. Could? Would. PSG looked terrified, caught in a storm, and an incomparable stage really was set up for the kind of comeback Madrid have built a history upon.