Juventus were magnificent in Madrid, but their failure to complete the great escape should not be blamed on English referee Michael Oliver, who called the key decisions correctly – says Desmond Kane.
Where do you start with this one? Right at the end of a bloody marvelous, astonishing, chaotic and utterly compulsive modern European Cup classic between two clubs who are defined by such heady nights.
It will already feel like the end of days for Massimiliano Allegri’s Juventus, who somehow scraped and harried their way back to 3-3 on aggregate in Madrid before enduring the agony of Cristiano Ronaldo winning it for the holders with the last kick of the tie.
He keeps his nerve to score a late penalty and send Real Madrid through to the semi-finals of the Champions League.
It must be said, the death throes of a tense and unbelievable Champions League quarter-final at the Bernabeu was settled in an animated final few minutes that had to be seen to be believed. Real Madrid join Bayern Munich, AS Roma and Liverpool in the semi-final draw on Friday, but came so close to being recalled as the victim of football’s most memorable mugging.
Having clawed their way back to parity from a 3-0 loss in the first leg with the sort of miraculous recovery that left you wondering if Max Allegri’s face was on the Shroud of Turin, an emboldened Juventus produced one fateful act of self-harming. Perhaps not even that. Perhaps it was just a basic error, but how costly positioning is in football.
With two minutes of three added for stoppage time, Toni Kroos floated a ball towards Ronaldo deep in the visiting box.
He jumped above Alex Sandro to head towards Lucas Vázquez, who was obviously bumped from behind by Medhi Benatia as he prepared to uncork a finish from close range with just Gianlugi Buffon to beat.
English referee Michael Oliver did not shirk his responsibility by immediately pointing to the penalty spot. The gut reaction tends to be the correct one. Oliver was correct.
Oliver saw the push on Vazquez, and blew his whistle. Cue several minutes of pandemonium which saw Oliver disgracefully bumped and jostled by several Juventus players.
Buffon was first to confront Oliver, and the intimidatory manner of his approach saw him rightly red carded by Oliver, who was left with little option.
It was a sad way for the iconic Buffon to depart on his 650th appearance for Juventus, and what could be his last Champions League match if he makes good on his promise to retire at the end of the season. The World Cup winner lamented the decision.
“The team gave its all, but a human being cannot destroy dreams like that at the end of an extraordinary comeback on a dubious situation,” he said as a sense of injustice raged within the Italian camp.
But Oliver should not be made a scapegoat for the magnificent Italian champions conking out when extra-time seemed a certainty. They were more upset with themselves than Oliver, but the referee is an easy target.
Would Buffon have been unhappy if the same decision had been awarded at the opposite end? After what felt like an eternity, Ronaldo scored in the seventh minute of added time.
Poor Polish goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny was forced to trudge off the visiting bench to face the penalty. But even if he had been joined in the goal by Buffon, it is unlikely they would have stopped the Ronaldo finish such was the velocity of the shot as he arrowed the ball high into the net, a picture of calm amid a posse of bedlam.
It is 17 goals in 11 games for CR7. He was not at his best, but he genuinely touched this match when it was desperately needed.
“My heart rate went up but I calmed myself because I knew it would be decisive,” said Ronaldo.
As Ronaldo became the ninth man to be booked on the night for losing his shirt after scoring, Juventus had lost the plot. Little wonder having come so close to producing the greatest comeback special since Elvis sang If I Can Dream 50 years ago.
Juventus were dreaming as early as the second minute. This truly was old school entertainment from the Old Lady. Without the suspended Sergio Ramos, 21-year-old central defender Jesus Vallejo was given a schooling as Juve showed little fear of their task.
Mario Mandzukic powered headers into the home net in the second and 37th minute before Blaise Matuidi benefited from a wretched fumble by Keylor Navas to stab Juventus level at 3-3 on the night on the hour-mark as the 12-times winners wobbled on the edge of true despair.
The Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane was a plaything in the hands of fate having removed Gareth Bale and Casemiro at half-time with Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez ultimately proving the value of change.
We had not seen anything like it as the Bernabeu turned quieter than the new horror movie A Quiet Place. But the final reveal proved to be a real horror moment for Juventus, one that will give them shivers for months to come.
“I don’t understand why they protested,” said Ronaldo. “Lucas was caught from behind, if it’s not a penalty it’s a goal.”
A night after Lionel Messi and Barcelona sunk, Ronaldo and Real survived what would have been their darkest hour. He will never forget his 150th appearance in this tournament.
But it should also be noted that they are unlikely to win the Champions League for a third straight year without the return of Ramos. He is the beating heart of Madrid, and almost watched it ripped from its hinges.
What a way to win it, what a way to go out. It was the British playwright TS Eliot who wrote that April is the cruelest month. For Juve, it was brutally cruel. Exceptionally so for Buffon.
But amid the wailing and gnashing of teeth, they must recede from the belief that they did not lose this night fair and square. They do themselves a disservice by persisting with such a notion.