Champions League

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Real, Borussia Dortmund reach deep

FOX Soccer recaps Tuesday's Champions League quaterfinal action.
FOX Soccer recaps Tuesday's Champions League quaterfinal action.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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Before the game, Borussia Dortmund’s hardcore fans along the Yellow Wall of their stadium unfurled a giant tifo depicting a black-and-yellow clad man peering at the UEFA Champions League trophy through his binoculars.

Ninety topsy-turvy minutes later, having stared down four score lines that would have knocked them out – 0-1; 1-1; 1-2; and 2-2 – the trophy remained in sight as they eked out an unimaginably tense and embattled 3-2 win on a 91st minute equalizer and a 92nd minute winner over Malaga, the tournament’s Cinderella story.

Over in Istanbul, meanwhile, Galatasaray needed five second-half goals to overturn a 4-0 aggregate deficit against mighty Real Madrid and managed to get three of them with 20 minutes to go through Emmanuel Eboue, Wesley Sneijder and Didier Drogba. And they did it with enough time to spare to suggest that they had a chance at pulling off this impossible task. They fell short in the end, as Cristiano Ronaldo scored his second for Madrid to make it 5-3 on aggregate, but not until they put forth the tantalizing suggestion that they might pull off the comeback of the century.

The games were flawed, rife with controversy but also beautiful; simultaneous contests putting the viewer at the edge of his seat the world over, whether it be a couch, a school bench or an office chair. Indeed, they were both breathless quarterfinal finales. To borrow the words of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson: Football. Bloody hell.

NON-STOP DRAMA

Relive the best images from this week's Champions League quarterfinal round.

There were mistakes aplenty. By the players – malpractice in defense and unmissable chances missed regardless on offense by men who seldom fail, like Real’s Ronaldo and Galatasaray’s Sneijder. But by the referees, too. A linesman blew the offside call on Malaga’s go-ahead 2-1 goal in the 80th minute, since Eliseu had been well offside when Julio Baptista slipped his shot past Roman Weidenfeller but he decided to push it over the line anyway. But then Mario Santana had been just as offside when he scrambled in the 3-2 winner for Dortmund after a scrap in the goalmouth at the other end, since he was behind goalkeeper Willy Caballero.

But in the end, the splendor won out as the aesthetic virtues of the beautiful game pushed themselves to the fore.

There were saves like the ones Caballero and Weidenfeller employed to keep their respective teams in the game; athletic, improbable and almost preternatural. Cat-like. These clubs flatly refused to concede in the face of an onslaught; Ronaldo’s backheel touch to Angel di Maria; Joaquin’s finely-honed finish to put Malaga up 1-0; Marco Reus’s backheel pass to Robert Lewandowski setting up Dortmund’s 1-1 equalizer; Eboue’s laser beam of a goal to give Galatasaray hope; Isco’s splendid pass to set up Eliseu’s goal; Jeremy Toulalan’s rocket shot, which Weidenfeller parried with a reflex beyond comprehension; Dortmund’s harmony on the ball; Ronaldo’s trickery with the ball.

There were endless helpings of prettiness and drama, stoking the fires of two physical and fiery and ferocious games further. And if this riveting sport is imperfect, then so be it if it yields us games like this.

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For all the drabness and predictability that can befall us as hundreds of teams slog their way through the season every year anew, it’s days like Tuesday that confirm and explain soccer’s spot upon the highest perch of sports. This is why the game is so beloved, so ubiquitous: the sheer limitlessness of possibility on the blank canvass of a green field. 22 players, one ball. Don’t use your hands, don’t stray offside. Just a few rules and 17 laws to the game. Simplicity, of which any kind of spectacle can be born.

Dortmund escaped and Real did too. The major favorites in each game advanced in the end. But not until their skill and nerve and mettle had been tested and pushed to the outer reaches of their capacity. Not until the game of soccer had drawn the very best from each team. They will advance to the semifinals. On Friday, their club names will be printed onto scraps of paper and into little balls, which will go into a big pot. They’ll be drawn from there and coupled to a new opponent. Either Barcelona or Paris Saint-Germain or Juventus or Bayern Munich. And then they’ll do it all again: a fight until their footballing death for our amusement.

Yes. Bloody hell.

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