The Bernabéu bounced and burst into song, the lyrics ringing around this arena the same that had adorned the huge banner unfurled at the south end before the kick-off. “Tell me how it feels,” they gloated. High in the north end, Atlético’s supporters sat in silence, stunned. This felt terrible. It was happening again, the pain unbearable. For a fourth consecutive year, they had met their rivals and for a fourth consecutive year they had fallen.
There will be another meeting between these sides but like all those derbies from an era of dominance Atlético thought they had left behind, it is likely to be irrelevant. Real were leading 3-0, on course for a third final in four years. Five times Cristiano Ronaldo scored against Bayern Munich in the quarter-final; three times he scored against Atlético in the semi-final. The first leg of the semi-final, that is. The first came after 10 minutes, the last after 86. In between them, Atlético did not manage a shot on target for the first time this season.
Real’s past 11 goals in this competition had come in the second half and opponents had scored first in each of their four games in the knockout stage, but here a goal arrived early. Ten minutes had gone when Sergio Ramos was given time to cross from right, curling towards Ronaldo, hovering behind Diego Godín. The defender headed out, but only as far as Casemiro, who struck the ball straight back in. He did not hit it well but it bounced up and Ronaldo, six yards out, headed past Jan Oblak.
The Bernabéu went wild. On the touchline, Diego Simeone was tapping his head. Think, but about what? It would have been difficult not to think about all those other times, three European defeats in three seasons, all at the hands of Real; difficult not to feel that pessimism returning, the inevitability of it all, the cruelty. Much of the buildup had focused on psychology. “If the past has to weigh on someone, let it be them,” Dani Carvajal had said, and that did appear to be happening.
Atlético looked rattled; even when they had the ball – and there were periods when they had a significant amount of it – there was a lack of conviction. They passed but rarely with intent or belief; often it was underhit. Koke swapped sides with Yannick Carrasco, seeking control, and while there was an improvement he was unusually imprecise. When he tried to thread it through gaps, the gaps closed. One superb pass that did cut through Real’s back four found Kévin Gameiro racing alone into the area, but as he slowed momentarily Keylor Navas sprinted towards him and, diving full length, took the ball from his toe.
When Atlético looked up, Real stood in their way. On the wings, especially, Atlético were struggling. Lucas Hernández, drafted in at right-back, was not enjoying himself. Oblak had already made a sharp save from Karim Benzema before the goal. After it, Luka Modric struck wide, Raphael Varane’s header was superbly saved and Benzema hit a wonderful overhead kick just past the bar.
Atlético’s first shot did not arrive until the half hour, when Antoine Griezmann’s clever free-kick found Godín sliding in at the far post. Real had taken 10 by then, although as the half progressed Atlético did wrestle back some control – they had stemmed the bleeding for now.
Atlético had been unexpectedly passive defensively and while there was little danger when they came forward, the good news was that trailed by only one. Real also lost Carvajal, going to ground holding his hamstring at the end of the first half. From full-back, he had been Real’s greatest threat; Marcelo on the other side had also concerned the visitors. Carvajal was replaced by Nacho Fernández who drew applause from the stadium when he won a race with Carrasco.
Atlético took a step forward, Real a step back. Yet if they appeared to be dropping too deep, Atlético lacked clarity in the final pass and the counterattack is a weapon Zinedine Zidane’s side use better than anyone. If a lot happened in the first half, little was happening now.
Fernando Torres and Nico Gaitín replaced Saúl and Gameiro, then Correa went on for Angel Carrasco, but their impact was minimal. Atlético advanced, but only so far. Ronaldo’s impact, by contrast, was gigantic. Real controlled, rarely suffered, and then hit. They had been the better side almost from the start, but it was not resolved until the end. With 73 minutes gone, Marcelo crossed from the left, Benzema held off Godín and nudged it on for him. Opening up his body, he smashed the shot into the top corner.
Soon another followed. Atlético sought the goal that would give them a chance; instead, they conceded the goal that means they surely have no chance. Lucas Vázquez broke up the right and pulled back for Ronaldo to finish with a simple side-foot shot. It was his 103rd Champions League goal, more than Atlético have ever scored.