FOX Soccer Exclusive
Madrid faces insurmountable odds
When the final whistle went in last week’s shock 4-1 UEFA Champions League semifinal first leg defeat at Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid minds were reeling. But immediately the focus swung to the potential for a roaring comeback in the return game at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu (live, FOX Soccer, Tuesday, 3 p.m. ET).
Just minutes after his side been comprehensively outplayed at the Signal Iduna Park, Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho talked up their chances of achieving an “impossible” turnaround.
"Over my three years at Real Madrid, I have been told about the feeling inside the ground during games which makes the impossible come true,” Mourinho said. “Of course we can do it. On a crazy night where everyone performs at a high level and you score every chance, you can do it.”
Current captain Sergio Ramos was also on-message when he spoke with radio reporters soon afterwards.
“Despite the result we have to believe we can come back at home,” Ramos said. “We must remember that 90 minutes in the Bernabeu is a very long time.”
The journalists present, and many Madridistas listening, would have recognized the echo of legendary Madrid forward Juanito’s famous statement: "Noventi minuti en el Bernabéu son molto longo." Ninety minutes in the Bernabéu are a very long time. Those words, an awkward but poetic mix of two languages, were spoken on Italian TV after Madrid had lost 3-1 at Inter Milan in the 1985-86 UEFA Cup semifinal.
Juanito knew that tie was not over, and he was proved right two weeks later. Madrid completed the “remontada” by hammering Inter 5-1 at the Bernabeu, and then went and won the final. Talk of such glorious Bernabeu nights has filled Madrid all week, fed by a media campaign orchestrated by the club and designed to build a feeling that a 21st century comeback was possible.
Madrid’s website published details of that game against Inter, and also wins against Derby County [5-1 in the 1975-76 European Cup], Anderlecht [6-1 in 1984-85 UEFA Cup] and Borussia Moenchengladbach [4-0 in the 1985-86 UEFA Cup]. The club also released a rousing online video with players including Ramos, Gonzalo Higuain, Xabi Alonso, Iker Casillas and Kaka calling on fans to get behind them on Tuesday. “You are our strength” was the message.
The local media has also played their part, devoting pages and pages of coverage to past remontadas and interviewing key figures from these legendary games. Former center forward Santillana, a scorer against Derby, Inter and Moenchengladbach, told Friday’s AS how such comebacks were made.
“I am of the old Madrid,” Santillana said. “When we lost heavily away, we all got in the same shower and hatched a plot. Our courage and rage made us react. You could fit 120,000 people in the Bernabeu and they made sure you left your soul out there. We pressured them high, we went in strong into tackles because the referees let you do it. We could play well or badly, but we said to the opponent - ‘Here we are.’”
While the media were revving things up, the players were preparing for Saturday evening’s city derby against Atletico Madrid. Mourinho rested many first teamers for that game - including Cristiano Ronaldo, Higuain, Alonso and Ramos - but the mix of reserves and kids was still good enough to win 2-1 and continue a 14 year unbeaten streak against the neighbors.
Ronaldo, who picked up a slight thigh problem in Dortmund, will be fine to start up front on Tuesday. After returning from injury against Atletico, Michael Essien could come in at right back, allowing Ramos to move into the center to mark Robert Lewandowski, with Pepe still likely traumatized by memories of the Polish striker’s four goals in last week’s first leg. Angel di Maria - who scored the winner against Atletico on Saturday - should also start on Tuesday.
The other names on Madrid’s teamsheet will likely be the same as those in Dortmund last week, but the mentality of the players should be different. All the remontada talk has worked – and there is a tangible atmosphere of belief around the city. If any side can turn around a 4-1 deficit, it is Madrid at the Bernabeu roared on by their fans.
By Monday’s pregame press conference, Mourinho was looking to calm things and focus minds.
“I am more concerned with my analysis of last week’s game, and tomorrow’s game, than with building a mood among fans,” he said. “We must first try to win the game, then if we are ahead, try and score more and see if we can make the final. Football is football, and everything is possible.”
The Portuguese had a point, Madrid must play with their heads on Tuesday night, not just their hearts. But with 80,000 fervent madridistas roaring them on, the impossible might just happen.