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Real Madrid hold off Atlético to reach Champions League final

Atléti put up a good fight, but it wasn’t enough to take down Real Madrid.

Club Atletico de Madrid v Real Madrid CF - UEFA Champions League Semi Final: Second Leg Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

It was a valiant effort from Atlético Madrid, but despite them beating Real Madrid, 2-1, in the second leg of their Champions League semifinal tie, that away goal from Isco sealed a 4-2 aggregate win for Real Madrid, sending the defending champions back to the final for the third time in four years.

The first half was one of the most frenetic and chaotic halves of football you’ll see at this level, with Atlético Madrid coming out swinging out of the gates and seeming to catch Real Madrid overconfident. The defending Champions League winners were knocked completely off balance in the early goings, with Atlético absolutely all over them in the final third, swarming at goal until scoring chances just had to come.

And come they did, with Saúl Ñíguez scoring a delightful goal in the 12th minute, then with Atlético earning a penalty just a few minutes later when Fernando Torres was hacked down in the box by Raphaël Varane in a desperation challenge. Antoine Griezmann converted the penalty, bringing the aggregate score to a shocking and sudden 3-2, with Real Madrid dancing on the razor edge of disaster.

That second goal kicked off a wildly physical spell to the match, with both sides getting hard and aggressive in challenges and with tempers flaring all over the pitch. Turkish referee Cuneyt Çakιr was hard-pressed to keep things under control, with everything threatening to spiral out of control several times over the course of the half.

Late in the half, Real Madrid were in desperation mode when a moment of magic struck — a long throw in from Cristiano Ronaldo found Karim Benzema heading for the byline, dancing right on the line with three Atlético defenders around him before pulling the ball back for Toni Kroos to fire at goal. His shot was well saved by Jan Oblak, but Isco was lurking in the six-yard box to hammer home the rebound, giving Real Madrid a much-needed away goal just a few short minutes before halftime.

That goal changed the complexion of the match entirely. Real holding that tiebreaker meant that there could be no extra time or penalties, and with a 4-2 aggregate score Atlético had to score three more goals of their own to win, all without conceding another. That was a mountainous task to try to accomplish, especially with Real then given the freedom to concentrate a bit more on defense.

And defend they did, doing their best to keep the wind out of Atlético’s sails. The Colchoneros did their best to keep chasing the game, but their suddenly huge deficit coupled with Real’s defensive quality left them hopeless in the match, though they certainly didn’t go down without a fight. Atlético certainly played well throughout the game, but that away goal stopped any real chance they had at making a comeback cold.

The 4-2 aggregate win means that Real Madrid will be defending their Champions League title from a year ago against Juventus in Cardiff in June, setting up fans for an exciting and high-level Champions League final. Neither team has exactly been perfect this season, but on the balance there’s little question that Real Madrid and Juventus have been the best two teams in Europe this season, and seeing them slug it out over the title will be an absolutely fantastic time for fans.

Atlético Madrid: Jan Oblak; Filipe Luís, Stefan Savić, Diego Godín, José Giménez (Thomas Partey 57’); Koke (Angel Correa 76’), Gabi, Saúl Ñíguez, Yannick Carrasco; Fernando Torres (Kevin Gameiro 56’), Antoine Griezmann

Goals: Ñíguez (12’), Griezmann (pen. 16’)

Real Madrid: Keylor Navas; Marcelo, Raphaël Varane, Sergio Ramos, Danilo; Luka Modrić, Casemiro (Lucas Vazquez 77’), Toni Kroos; Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema (Marco Asensio 77’), Isco (Alvaro Morata 88’)

Goals: Isco (42’)

Three things we learned

Cuneyt Çakιr deserves a lot of credit

We often see referees being heavily criticized after big matches, but that’s not the case after this one. This was a match that continuously threatened to spiral out of control, but Çakιr did a very good job of managing things as the referee in charge. He made it very clear early and often what he would and would not put up with, but he also didn’t push too far — other referees could have been justified in sending off multiple players by the time Real Madrid scored in the first half, and likely would have.

Çakιr did not, though, understanding the importance of the match at hand and knew that punitive ejections would have seriously hampered the night’s quality. Instead he let the game flow as he could and pulled players aside as he needed to to keep things under control, and it actually worked out very well. Not many referees would have stayed as calm and controlled as he did, and Çakιr should be congratulated for how well he managed this game.

Diego Godin cost Atlético their chance to win

If you go back to the buildup to the Isco goal, there was a very, very bad mistake made by Atlético Madrid’s captain. As Karim Benzema was heading for the byline, Godin actually had him dead to rights — a toe-poke challenge would have kicked the ball away. Instead, though, Godin made a bizarre challenge seeming to predict an unlikely step-over from Benzema, whiffing entirely and pulling himself out of the play until it was too late to stop Benzema.

Godin wasn’t the only guilty party on that sequence — two other Atléti defenders had clear shots at fouls on Benzema to stop the play after that — but he had the clearest and lowest-risk stop to make. He failed at that, though, and now Atlético are out of the Champions League because of the resulting goal.

Isco was absolutely magnificent

Isco has been a massive lightning rod of criticism during his Real Madrid career, but during this tie and especially in this match, he was phenomenal. Asked to carry a larger amount of the creative load, Isco stepped up in a big way and put on one of the best performances of his life, creating danger almost every time he was on the ball and constantly finding himself in positions to impact the match.

His goal came as a result of good footballing instincts, stepping higher up the pitch with Ronaldo and Benzema both pulled out wide by the circumstances of the throw-in that set the play up. Isco made a clever and quiet series of little moves to almost ghost up to a spot close to the near post, leaving him in perfect position to deal with any rebounds or loose balls in front of goal — just like the one that resulted from Toni Kroos’ shot that Isco quickly turned in.

Isco’s heads up play carried on like that his entire time on the pitch, and even extended into defensive duties, where he did a good job of harrying Diego Godin and Stefan Savic when they were on the ball. It was an excellent all-around performance from Isco, and one that should earn him a lot of trust from Zinedine Zidane and fans alike.