By Rory Smith
Not long after Cristiano Ronaldo scored the first of his three goals, as belief, rather than hope, pulsed around the stadium, as Juventus’s fans bounced and sang and roared, Mario Mandzukic turned inside, and floated a cross into Atlético Madrid’s box.
He misjudged the weight of the pass, just a little: a few inches too high for his target, Fernando Bernardeschi, and maybe a yard or so behind him. No matter. It was one opportunity lost. Another would surely soon be on its way.
Bernardeschi, though, was not quite so quick to write it off. He adjusted his run, twisted his body, planted his right foot and leapt upward, swinging his left leg toward the ball, making contact, full and thick.
It would have been some goal, the sort that would belong in a computer game or a comic book. Instead, it skimmed the outside of Jan Oblak’s net. The crowd purred in appreciation of what might have been.
The mere attempt was fantastical, really, a shot with such a slim chance of success, one that required such precise measurements of vision and technique and timing, one that any half-decent analyst would tell you was not worth the bother. Most players would have written off the idea as soon as it had occurred to them.
That Bernardeschi did not says a lot about him, of course — his was a performance brimming with intent and ambition and no little skill — but it offers a little insight, too, into the nature of the modern Champions League.
This is a competition that has, in recent years, discarded the very notion of unlikely. With every year that passes, it seems to stretch the bounds of credulity a little further, to demand an even greater suspension of disbelief. It is infused, now, with a sense of fantasy. There is something in the air on these nights that encourages players and teams to give something — to give anything — a go. It is a competition of you-never-know, of why-not. It is the place where those overhead kicks go in.
Indeed, by recent standards, it is hard to categorize what happened here Tuesday as any sort of seismic shock. Yes, Juventus recovered from two goals down in the first leg to win by 3-0, and reach the quarterfinals. Yes, Atlético Madrid, for so long regarded as soccer’s most obdurate, unyielding opponent, the sport’s great immovable object, collapsed into itself, Diego Simeone’s players succumbing to their fate with barely a whimper.
Of course, Juventus’s progression was improbable, but it did not feel impossible, even beforehand. In part, that can be attributed to the mere presence of Ronaldo, the player Juventus signed because the club’s hierarchy believed him to be as close to a guarantee in this competition as can be imagined.
Ronaldo had scored only one goal in his past nine Champions League games. As has been the case every year for the past few, it had become acceptable to wonder if his brilliance was starting to fade.
No, as it turns out. This is his stage, and these are his games. He comes alive when the world is watching, when there is a chance to be a hero. He feeds off it. Obviously he was going to score the goals — two towering headers — that drew Juventus level. And who else, exactly, was going to take the penalty, won by Bernardeschi, that sent manager Massimiliano Allegri’s team through?
But it was not simply the confidence that comes with the player who is, by almost every metric, the greatest Champions League player of all time that fed Juventus’ conviction. Allegri’s players need only to have seen what happened last week — Ajax eliminating Real Madrid after losing the first leg at home; Manchester United’s reserves eliminating Paris St.-Germain after losing the first leg at home — to feel that their task was not too onerous.
Those are just the most recent examples. Last year, Roma overturned a three-goal deficit against no less than Barcelona to reach the semifinals; Juventus itself, even without Ronaldo, lost by 3-0 to Real Madrid in Turin, and then build a three-goal lead in the Santiago Bernabéu in the return before a late penalty brought it all to a crushing close.
And, of course, 12 months earlier came the most remarkable of them all: Barcelona’s 6-1 comeback to recover from four goals down against PSG, Sergi Roberto scoring in the final minute of more than 180, one of the most expensive teams ever assembled humiliated and cowed.
It is worth asking why these results keep happening, why a competition that once was marked by its caution and its caginess has become so chaotic. Allegri was not, particularly, in the mood to do so Tuesday — “These things have always happened,” he said — though he did suggest that the quality of the teams, as well as the sense of a second chance even after a first-leg defeat, might feed into it. And perhaps all of those precedents, too, have persuaded players that there is no such thing as a lost cause.
But that is only telling one side, allowing the victors to write history.
What explains the gulf in performances over the course of two games for the losing teams: for Atlético and Real Madrid and, invariably, PSG? Is it complacency, the converse of the avenging energies of the defeated? Is it the exposure of some fatal flaw? Is it an inherent respect for the epic?
Or is it — as Luka Milivojevic, a Serb midfielder for Crystal Palace, put it earlier this season — something to do with the nature of the challenge? A team like Lyon, he explained, is able to carry a game to Manchester City in the Champions League in a way that could not happen domestically because it is used to having the initiative; its default mode is to have the ball.
That is true of almost all of the teams in Europe’s elite competition. They are unaccustomed — even Atlético, whose reputation for doughty defending is rooted in its performances against Real, Barcelona and in the Champions League — to ceding control.
That tends to make games much more open, much more exciting, much more chaotic; and when an opponent can wrest the momentum from them, it makes them much more vulnerable. They are placed in a situation they do not have a great deal of experience in handling. They are powerless to resist. Perhaps that is what has created this version of the Champions League, where anything can happen, where improbable is not enough and impossible might not be, too, where it is worth giving something, no matter how fantastical, a go.