Seven years of hurt? Nah, cojones to that. Real Madrid are back in Champions League business.
Real Madrid were up for this one. A pristine Ronaldo strode out with his hair all a-slick, Mesut Ozil rolled his Marty Feldman eyes wider than ever and an uptight Pepe flattened everything in his windmilling, leg-flailing path.
The Bernabeu even made some noise, rousing itself from its perpetual state of ennui to sing, chant, whistle and roar, just as Mourinho and his players had ordered them to. It wasn’t quite like the mad bad European nights of old, and the guy on the Ultra Sur megaphone did have a job keeping them going, but it was a start.
Victors here 12 months ago, Lyon matched their hosts’ bug-eyed intensity at first. But Les Gones were well gone by the end, which made you wonder why it’s taken Madrid, with all their cash reserves and shedful of European titles, so long to return to the quarter-finals.
For the last six years they’ve been tripping over their own sense of entitlement in the last 16, going out with varying degrees of ineptitude at the same stage of a competition they’ve still won three times more than Barcelona. Hubris had a lot to do with that recurring nightmare, and if there’s one thing Mourinho teams don’t do, it’s hubris.
The night starts in predictable fashion. “Cristiano plays”, gasps AS online in mock big-lettered surprise, announcing the Portuguese’s recovery from a minor muscle tear that was never going to keep him out of this game. Lisandro Lopez, Lyon’s talismanic Argentinian striker is also back, soon to be floored by the high-flying knees of the pent-up Pepe, gradually ratcheting himself up for a senseless encore.
Lyon need to score, but it’s Madrid who bristle, Ronaldo beginning his return with a trademark spurt and a free-kick blazed high over the bar. Yet it was to be a measured performance from the Portuguese, reining himself in for bigger tests ahead.
For the last six years Madrid have been tripping over their own sense of entitlement in the last 16, going out with varying degrees of ineptitude
Ozil and Marcelo, a nominal left-back and the most improved player under the Mourinho regime, do most of the darting around the box, along with the revitalised Benzema, taking to the pitch again with another of his coach’s performance-enhancing rockets lodged firmly up his arse.
Yet the biggest indicator of the change Mourinho has engineered with this once-shambolic outfit is Casillas. The busiest man in Spain not so long ago, brilliantly plugging gaps behind a shit-for-brains rearguard, St Iker has had barely a save to make in recent weeks, though Delgado forces a fine low stop from him as the visitors begin to pull the home defence out of shape.
Then, with the Bernabeu starting to murmur its disapproval, Madrid take the lead, the surging Marcelo collecting Ronaldo’s delicious stabbed pass, checking his momentum to dump Lovren on his side and shooting home via the excellent Lloris’ outstretched arm.
“That’s a cat reaction,” says our Spanish commentator as the leaping Lloris then tips Benzema’s bump-ball shot over the bar, the first half-coverage ending with the sight of Mourinho marching off to the dressing-room with his arm curled matily around the shoulder of Lyon’s Cesar.
This being Spain there’s not a studio pundit in view during the interval, though any relief at that wears off during ten uninterrupted minutes of ads, which in my remote, agrarian corner of the Iberian peninsula often means plugs for rat poison and bike-riding priests peddling fertiliser.
Lyon’s hopes of a second-half revival decrease with the introduction of the lumbering Gomis. The visitors begin the half farting around on the ball, though the industrious Kallstrom does his best to inject some urgency as the crowd whistles.
Ronaldo throws a far-post tizzy when Ozil and Benzema, engaging in some penalty-box foreplay, ignoring his pleas for a ménage à trois. And when the Frenchman’s subsequent claims for a penalty are waved away, there’s the slightest sense that Madrid’s six-year itch could yet be about to spread.
Benzema brings almost instant relief, zipping past a sleeping Kris to tuck Marcelo’s long pass neatly under Lloris’s butt cheeks. Jose twirls his index finger and the camera cuts away to a section of politely applauding fans. The noise levels may have risen a notch or two, but the Bernabeu fan demographic clearly still needs working on.
Gomis stings Casillas’ palms but Lyon’s appetite for the fight is fading. Recognising as much, Mourinho whips off Ronaldo to widespread acclaim. The galloping runs and stepovers have largely been absent but he’s done his job.
Di Maria adds a nonchalant, unnecessary third from Ozil’s flick-on, and soon it’s the departing Benzema’s turn to soak up some love from the stands, parts of which are now bouncing up and down, no doubt to Jose’s satisfaction.
Then, acting like the pissed-up knob who’s been brushed off by every girl in the disco, the unhinged Pepe almost spoils the party, aiming a wild kick at Cissokho. He’s got previous, and though this latest brain fade somehow goes unpunished, his mentalist tendencies are a weakness for craftier and nastier sides than Lyon to exploit.
There’s a nice touch at the final whistle, with players from both sides sporting T-shirts with a message of support for Eric Abidal, the Barcelona and former Lyon defender, who has a kidney tumour and goes under the knife on Thursday.
“Puts it all into perspective Jeff”, the pundits back home are no doubt saying. Luckily for me, it’s more dead rats and freewheeling clerics.
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