Three points from the Bernabeu as Champions League holders Real Madrid needed a late Cristiano Ronaldo free kick and Alvaro Morata strike to seal a 2-1 win over Sporting Lisbon in the opening group game.
1. Madrid leave it late again
Champions League holders Real Madrid got their bid to become the first team to retain the trophy (in its current expanded version) off to a shaky start with a last gasp 2-1 win against Sporting Lisbon on Wednesday.
Sporting put in a splendidly intelligent and organised performance in the Group F opener and deservedly took the lead just after the break when playmaker Bruno Cesar curled in from 15 yards. They seemed set for a first victory at the Bernabeu until ex-Sporting youth product Cristiano Ronaldo curled in a 25-yard free kick to equalise with time almost up.
Then Madrid substitute Alvaro Morata ruined the visitors’ night by heading the winner with the last touch of the game.
Los Blancos coach Zinedine Zidane had named all his big stars in the XI for the first time this season, but the lower profile visitors began the game as the better team. Sporting midfielders Adrien Silva and Bruno Cesar were closest to scoring through the opening stages and midway through the first half there were whistles from the 73,000 home crowd.
So it was no real shock soon after halftime, when Bruno Cesar took advantage of some weak challenges from Luka Modric and Sergio Ramos to steer a low 15-yard shot past Kiko Casilla into the far bottom corner.
Madrid went all season without conceding at the Bernabeu in the Champions League last season. But that record went after 47 minutes of 2016-17.
Zidane’s side understandably upped the tempo and pressure after going behind, but it was left to Ronaldo’s late free kick to save his and his team’s blushes before Morata broke Sporting hearts. Not for the first time in recent years, Madrid showed they always keep fighting right until the end.
2. Down and up reunion for Ronaldo
Ronaldo had said pregame that this meeting with his former club, where he spent six years as a teenager before joining Manchester United in 2003, would be a “special occasion.” And the former Avalade starlet must have run through the whole gamut of emotions as he struggled to have an impact before showing his class with his superb late equaliser.
Understandably short of match fitness in just his second start of the season, early on he was outpaced by usually pedestrian ex-Liverpool centre-half Sebastian Coates, while a number of very optimistic claims for free kicks were ignored by Italian referee Paolo Tagliavento.
There were a couple of first half long range efforts — but his 35-yarder was easily touched over the bar by international teammate Rui Patricio, and a free kick from a difficult [or impossible] angle was fizzed well over the bar.
After his former team had taken a shock lead, Ronaldo seemed visibly frustrated, although he remained on the pitch when fellow Galactico attackers Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale were substituted with 20 minutes remaining.
On 82 minutes, when a cross reached him three yards out at the back post, his awkward effort rebounded off the woodwork and it seemed the 31-year-old was set for a night of embarrassment.
However, there was still time for him to win a soft free kick from Tagliavento and pick himself up to perfectly place his shot just far enough away from Patricio. Ronaldo’s goal celebration was muted in respect for his former team — the feeling was probably more one of relief than anything else.
3. Sporting come so close
For some, Sporting were really only supposed to provide the backdrop for another touching Ronaldo story. But Jorge Jesus’ team came into the game in excellent form, top of the Portuguese league, with four wins from four so far. And they looked a very cohesive and talented side which deserved a result at the Bernabeu and might still do something in Group F.
Even after selling last year’s stars Islam Slimani and Joao Maria, Sporting retained three of Ronaldo’s Euro 2016 winning Portugal teammates in their XI — midfielders William Carvalho and Adrien Silva, and goalkeeper Patricio.
Carvalho, often mentioned as a potential Madrid target, looked comfortable in the holding central role. He was quick to break up the play and also showed good touch and awareness when in possession — at one point skipping away from Bale, in another shouldering Ronaldo aside to keep the ball. He even almost opened the scoring with powerful shot from 15 yards bravely headed away by Raphael Varane with Casilla beaten.
Also impressive was goal scorer Bruno Cesar, who regularly found space away from Casemiro and might have scored a couple more. Portugal under-21 winger Gelson gave Marcelo and Sergio Ramos a difficult evening too, regularly showing a clean pair of heels but being unable to pick out a cross.
In the end the weakest link in the chain was Patricio: the only Sporting player at the club’s academy when a teenage Ronaldo was around. The goalkeeper got a hand to both Cristiano’s free kick, and Morata’s header, but both hit the net and all the club’s previous great work was for nothing.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.