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Joselu was the unlikely hero, but Real’s fightback was inevitable

Joselu was the unlikely hero, but Real’s fightback was inevitable

MADRID – Ahead of the second leg of the Champions League semi-final, coach Thomas Tuchel said his Bayern Munich players had to “connect with their inner child” at the Santiago Bernabeu, recalling their childhood dreams of playing this kind of match to play.

On Wednesday, Real Madrid showed why they are the adults in this competition. The comeback victory, which saw Bayern defeated 2-1 on the evening and 4-3 on aggregate to advance to the final at Wembley on June 1, made it six Champions League final appearances in eleven seasons.

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Success in the Champions League for Madrid, often under the most unlikely of circumstances, has become routine.

No club – not even Bayern – can match the history and pedigree of Madrid’s fourteen European Cups. No coach – not even Tuchel, who won this competition with Chelsea and lost a final with Paris Saint-Germain – can match Carlo Ancelotti’s six Champions League finals as a manager.

And no team can even come close to this Real Madrid, which achieves the impossible when it matters most. There were echoes of 2022 and the logic-defying knockout stage series in which they produced back-to-back home comebacks to eliminate PSG, Chelsea and Manchester City after finishing second on each occasion.

So when Alphonso Davies’ goal in the 68th minute put Bayern 1-0 ahead and 3-2 on aggregate, Madrid did not go bankrupt. They’ve been here before. As a packed Bernabeu – noisier and more imposing than at any time since its rebuild – roared at them, they went for Bayern.

When substitute Joselu, who at the age of 34 is enjoying a glorious late-career renaissance, made it 1-1 in the 88th minute, it wasn’t even a surprise. Of course Madrid would find a way. They always do that. Three minutes later Joselu got another. This time the home fans’ joy was briefly delayed by an offside flag, which was quickly corrected by VAR.

Joselu is a lifer Madridista. The last time Madrid played a Champions League final, in Paris in 2022, he was there as a fan when they beat Liverpool 1-0. Now he has scored the goals that put Madrid back in the final. When the final whistle blew, after fourteen nervous minutes of extra time, his teammates embraced him one by one, as the crowd chanted his name.

Strikers Vinícius Júnior, Rodrygo and Jude Bellingham had scored the goals that took Madrid to this point – with 14 between them in the Champions League this season – but Joselu’s contribution on Wednesday could be the defining image of their European campaign. A night after Kylian Mbappe failed to impress on the big stage, the man he could replace in the Madrid squad next season could not have done better.

Before that late drama, this had been a tense evening. In a tight, goalless first half, the best chance went to Madrid, with Manuel Neuer tipping Vinicius’ shot onto the post before saving from Rodrygo.

Madrid dominated, playing 83 passes into the attacking third, compared to Bayern’s 17. The visitors’ attacking focal point, Harry Kane, was limited to just 14 touches in the first half, the fewest of any player. He completed just one pass and had one – dangerous – shot.

The second half was more open from the start. Davies and Kane both came close, and so did Rodrygo and Vinicius at the other end, before Davies’ opener. A player who had been linked all season with a move to Madrid, out of form and out of the Bayern team, now seemed to be the unexpected hero of the evening.

Ancelotti’s response was to change teams quickly. Luka Modric and Eduardo Camavinga came on in midfield, while Joselu and Brahim Díaz joined them in attack.

Joselu’s winning goal showed how committed Madrid were to throwing everything forward, how much they believed in their chances of another comeback. One central defender, Nacho, found another, Antonio Rüdiger, in the Bayern field. Rudiger then crossed to Joselu to finish. There was no offside on either pass. Madrid advanced to the final, with another chance to add to their unparalleled record in this competition.