MADRID — The noise rose and swelled with every passing second, changing timbre and pitch at the same time. It started as hisses, desperate and urgent, turning into something more akin to a roar, shapeless and elemental, filled with angst and anticipation, as if the sound itself could ward off more pain. .
By the time the final whistle sounded, it was so loud it seemed to bubble from the ground or rumble from the sky. Somehow, however, it turned out to be the prelude: release was yet to come, as Real Madrid and Chelsea players collapsed on the turf, the day’s winners defeated and the triumphant beat on two legs, and the Bernabeu creaked and shook.
It is of course not the first time that a Champions League match has ended like this: the spectacular comeback and the breathtaking rebound are now the calling card of this competition, a regularity so remarkable that it is remarkable, in a way, that each time it happens that it somehow retains its ability to surprise.
It’s not even like it’s a rarity here. The sight of the Real Madrid players, swept away on the pitch in a state of pure and happy exhaustion, having somehow turned a certain defeat into a triumph which – when the dust has settled and it is possible to process the information in a cool and compelling way – was actually the only logical outcome that happens with alarming frequency. It happened barely a month ago, against Paris Saint-Germain, to start with.
That’s exactly what the Champions League does: produce nights in which Villarreal, a team just above mid-table in Spain, can knock out Bayern Munich and find themselves in the shadows. That’s exactly what Real Madrid do: flirt with disappointment, play with disaster, then flip a switch and emerge victorious.
Even by those standards, however, Real’s grueling, emotional and thrilling loss to Chelsea – on aggregate (5-4), if not on the night itself (a 3-2 loss) – managed to be more exhausting, more emotional, more exciting. than most.
There was not just one comeback, after all, but two, stitched together in the same marathon game: Chelsea overcoming the two-goal lead Real Madrid established in London last week, seemingly booking their place in the semi-finals in the process, then Real Madrid, beaten and intimidated, rises from the ashes to snatch it.
It all happened in one pass. For 80 minutes, Real fans had only suffered. They had arrived at the Bernabeu in high spirits, walking up the Paseo de la Castellana filled with absolute confidence that Carlo Ancelotti’s side could get the job done. This is Real Madrid in the Champions League, after all. That’s how these things work.
It lasted a full quarter of an hour, pierced in a flash by Mason Mount’s opener. The Bernabeu has become unstable, uncomfortable. Real Madrid appeared to freeze, as if Europe’s most experienced and grizzled team were arguably unsure of protocol in this situation. Chelsea smelled of blood.
Just after half-time, Antonio Rüdiger scored – a simple goal, a header from a corner, as if it were all easy enough – and the score was equal. An oppressive, restless silence descended, the sound of 61,000 people waking up and remembering that, oh yeah, this Real Madrid team is pretty old now, isn’t it, and they’ve been through a lot, and it needs a refresh.
There was a brief glimmer of hope when Marcos Alonso’s goal was ruled out for the slightest handball, but it turned out to be an illusion. A few minutes later, Timo Werner skated and skidded around the edge of the penalty area and sent the ball over the line. The taunts rained down then, just for a moment. A few people headed for the exits. A few people are still heading for the exits. At this point, everyone really should know better.
It was the atmosphere, then, when Luka Modric collected the ball, just inside the Chelsea half, with 10 minutes to go. There was, to the naked and untrained eye, no option before him; just Rodrygo, the young Brazilian winger, darting across the field, dutifully followed by a defender. Modric had no choice but to turn back, change his angle of attack, rebuild.
Or, it turned out he could sweep a ball with the outside of his right foot just beyond the Chelsea defense and straight at Rodrygo’s boot, inside the area, perfectly timed to that he directs a shot in front of Edouard Mendy without breaking stride. The pass did not exist. Modric found it anyway, and in doing so Real found their creed.
That goal pushed the game into extra time, giving the home side, the impending Spanish champions, a reprieve. Real Madrid don’t waste them.
Karim Benzema, who scored three goals for his side in the first leg, led Real into the lead on aggregate with 96 minutes played. By this point, all sense of order had been fractured, all thought of planning, of reason or strategy thrown to the winds.
Chelsea launched all their players forward. Real Madrid substitute left-back Marcelo ended up playing as a striker, for reasons he himself didn’t really understand. There were scares: a shot from Jorginho, a header from Kai Havertz. All evening, the whole campaign seemed to be hanging by a thread.
All the while, the noise was mounting, first wanting, then impatient, and finally fair and demanding. It has become a place and a crowd crying out to be lifted out of their misery. No one heard the whistle. No one could hear the whistle.
They didn’t know it was over until they saw the players on the grass, all the breath drawn from their bodies, their legs suddenly twisting out of shape, a conclusion both impossible and inevitable. They should be used to that by now, really. That’s always how it ends, at Real Madrid, after all. It doesn’t always end like this.