MADRID — There was a lot of talk about never-give-up attitude and fighting until the end at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on Wednesday night, after late goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and Alvaro Morata gave Real Madrid a last-gasp 2-1 Champions League group-stage win over a desperately unlucky Sporting Lisbon team.
“We are Madrid. We know that every game will be difficult,” said Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane after the Group F opener for both teams. “But we also know that in any moment we can make the difference. In a game like today, when it seems it will be difficult, we get the three points. I stick with that — it makes me smile and be relaxed. We cannot win every game 5-0. That does not exist. Today we suffered, but we got the win.”
Zidane even suggested that fans at the Bernabeu actually prefer to suffer during a game like this that goes down to the wire, rather than the straightforward stroll to victory they often see.
“The fans like it this way,” he said. “Sometimes they go home and say it was just an easy win. I don’t know if you can say it was a fair result or not. But we knew we could always do something. We showed character, and the effort was tremendous from them all, and they got their reward.”
Morata, the locally born Madrid youth product, scored his first big goal since returning to the Bernabeu in the summer. After his goal in stoppage time broke a 1-1 deadlock, he spoke after the game about how unlikely comebacks tend to happen for his team.
“We didn’t start the game well, but this is Madrid, and at this club and in this stadium anything can happen,” Morata said. “Sometimes football is not fair. Today it was not fair, but it was fundamental to win and we did that.”
The local media played the same tune, with the AS match report headlined: “Only Madrid can win this way.” Real’s Gareth Bale, substituted early after never really threatening to score, knows enough about his club’s traditions after three-plus seasons in the Spanish capital.
— Gareth Bale (@GarethBale11) September 14, 2016
At Zidane’s postgame news conference, the still relatively inexperienced head coach was asked to analyse why his team had been able to turn the game around. He responded by talking up the depth of his squad, suggesting that if Plan A did not work, then he always had Plans B and C ready to try.
“Everybody is focused, working hard, and in any moment they can bring something new, something good to the team,” Zidane said. “When some play better, others worse, there will always be a teammate who can come in. The important thing is I have these players who can make the difference; not every coach has these resources. I have the fortune to have a complete squad.”
It is true that substitutes Morata, James Rodriguez and Lucas Vazquez did make a difference, providing more attacking impetus and energy through the closing stages. But it’s also true that Sporting were always going to drop deep and try to defend their 1-0 lead. And that until Ronaldo found the top corner with his 25-yard free kick in the 89th minute, Real had not forced visiting keeper Rui Patricio into making any difficult saves.
For long periods of the game, coach Jorge Jesus’ Sporting side played better football, and with a bit more luck themselves they might have had more than just Bruno Cesar’s strike to show for a very tactically astute performance that nullified Real playmakers Toni Kroos and Luka Modric for most of the game. Jesus’ analysis at his news conference afterward rang truer than Zidane’s.
“We had 85 minutes with great tactical discipline, positional rigour,” Jesus said. “We were not really under pressure. Madrid had very few chances, until Ronaldo’s free kick. Sporting played a great game. We just lacked a bit of experience; we have good players, but they lack experience.”
That lack of experience perhaps told in the end, and mattered just as much (or more) than their opponent’s remontada comeback history. Madrid have shown many times through the past few seasons, most recently in the UEFA Super Cup against Sevilla, that they never give up. But that allows chance to play a huge role in what happens. On another night, Italian referee Paolo Tagliavento might not have given the foul that resulted in Ronaldo’s free kick, or Ronaldo might have hit the free kick just a foot higher, or keeper Rui Patricio might have gotten a stronger hand on the ball to deny the equaliser.
A loss on Wednesday, or even a draw, with a tricky trip to Borussia Dortmund up next, would have been a serious problem for Zidane’s team, and likely would have kept Group F alive right until the end. As it is, the defending Champions League champs are still set for a straightforward passage to the last 16, but they must know they cannot always rely on rolling the dice and trusting that their number will come up.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.