“If there is a team anywhere that can turn this around, it’s them,” Pep Guardiola said. And so, it seemed, did almost everyone else. Down on the touchline at full time Casemiro said it. Up in the commentary box the former Real Madrid player and manager Jorge Valdano said it, too. He knows: Valdano was a member of the team who constructed an identity around the remontada, making dramatic comebacks part of Real’s mythology. It was a belief system, an act of faith.
But faith is blind and the reality is different. Real may indeed turn their Champions League last-16 tie around after the 2-1 defeat to Manchester City at the Bernabéu on Wednesday. They have the players to do so even if they don’t have that player any more. Cristiano Ronaldo is gone but no one would be daft enough to say it’s done. No one from City did so, that’s for sure.
In recent years, as Real won three Champions Leagues in a row, it has often felt inevitable they would find a way. Going further back it was their thing, or so it goes. But the story doesn’t always stand up and history is not always repeated – especially if it didn’t happen in the first place, at least not the way it was told.
They used to call it the Spirit of Juanito after the forward who died in a car crash in 1992. Juanito had warned Internazionale that “90 minutes at the Bernabéu are very long” after they had won a European Cup first leg 3-1 in 1986. Real won the second leg 4-1. It was becoming a habit: they had turned around a 3-0 defeat against Anderlecht the year before, wining 6-0 at home. That season they also overcame a 5-1 first-leg defeat by Borussia Mönchengladbach with a 4-0 home victory. In 1976 they had done the same to Derby, winning the second leg 5-1, having lost 4-1 in the first.
When those opponents got to the Bernabéu they suffered what Valdano described as “stage fright”. Real applied what they called “Code Red”: it was noisy and it was nasty and it worked. Sometimes it did, anyway. Epic was what they did, or what they said they did. It was a mental state in part, the midfielder Míchel saying: “The history of Real Madrid is full of games won in the last minute and the opposition knows that. History matters, history plays. No one knows why but you pull on that Real Madrid shirt and you become a mini Incredible Hulk.”
Only history says something different, especially now. Before the quarter-final second leg against Wolfsburg in 2016, Juanito’s son Roberto pleaded with people to leave his dad’s memory alone. It was not surprising considering one newspaper had carried out a ouija board session to call on his spirt to beat Atlético Madrid in the cup having lost the first leg. Even less surprising considering they had lost. “Every time you mention him for a comeback, we lose,” Roberto said.
That time, as it turned out, they didn’t: Real came back to beat Wolfsburg 3-0 having lost the first leg 2-0. But that wasn’t epic – it just underlined how bad Wolfsburg were and how odd it was that Real had got themselves into that mess in the first place. And Roberto was right. Juanito had been evoked when Real had to overcome a 4-1 first-leg deficit against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League semi-final in 2013. They failed to turn it round – just as they had done the last 14 times they had sought to overcome a first-leg deficit going back 27 years.
The Champions League era makes the point powerfully. Since 1992, they have had wins overturned more than they have produced remontadas: Juventus in 2003, Monaco in 2004, Juventus in 2005, Bayern in 2007, Ajax last year. Against Arsenal, Liverpool, Dortmund, Juventus, Barcelona and Bayern, the talk was of a comeback, overturning an adverse result but they didn’t succeed in any of them.
This time the second leg isn’t even at home, although that may not be such an advantage considering Real have won only one of their past six games at the Bernabéu, that stage fright felt more by them perhaps than their visitors now. Sergio Ramos had implied as much in the buildup to the City game, talking of anxiety and expectation, a certain tension at a ground where they have shown vulnerability.
And so, to England they go again. Arsenal won 1-0 at the Bernabéu and held on at Highbury in 2006. When Liverpool won 1-0 in Madrid in 2009, Real’s president claimed it didn’t matter: they would “piss on” them at Anfield. Real lost 4-0.
Turning a 2-1 defeat around against City is a tough task: Guardiola’s team were the better side for most part in Madrid, even if Real lamented that late collapse that allowed their lead to slip away. Real have limitations, which were exposed.
Rodri noted Real are a “flatter” team now without Ronaldo and they go to Manchester without their captain, Ramos, too. “It isn’t over but we have a lot of work ahead of us,” Casemiro said. History is not on their side, either. Only once have Real overcome a home first-leg defeat in Europe – against FC Wacker in the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1970, losing the other four – but then history is there to be rewritten, too.