Everyone expected a close match between crosstown rivals Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League semifinal tie, but Cristiano Ronaldo had other ideas. The Portuguese megastar scored yet another hat trick to give Real a massive 3-0 lead, potentially winning the tie at the Santiago Bernabéu before Atlético even get a chance to play at home.
The first half started with Real Madrid coming out on fire, screaming up the pitch and going right at Atlético Madrid’s goal to try and take an early lead. After a few miscues, they managed to do exactly that, with Ronaldo coming up with a huge header in the 10th minute after a half-cleared cross was sent back in by Casemiro for Ronaldo to put away. There were some questions as to whether Ronaldo should have been called offside on the initial pass before the clearance, but in the end he wasn’t and the goal stood.
Real controlled much of the rest of the first half after taking that early lead, but struggled to find a second goal thanks mostly to bad luck. Karim Benzema was inches away from scoring two goals, including a spectacular overhead kick that he just didn’t quite connect on. That started to open the door just a little bit for Atlético to get back into the match, but the wall of Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane held firm for Real Madrid in central defense.
The second half was an extremely close affair that had a lot of chippy moments in it, which threatened to boil over a bit at times after several hard fouls from both teams. But that closeness evaporated in a hurry once Ronaldo started finding some space, with a pair of tactical adjustments and substitutions from Zinedine Zidane changing Real’s shape a bit and giving Ronaldo more opportunities to score — opportunities that he took full advantage of.
First came a jaw-dropping volley, with Ronaldo’s first touch adding a bit more bounce to an awkwardly placed pass — then hammering it home off one of those bounces, giving Atléti goalkeeper Jan Oblak no chance to save it. That goal put Atlético on their heels, knowing they had to chase the match, and things opened up a bit as Diego Simeone’s team tried to run their way to a goal, but that openness just gave Ronaldo more chances in front of goal, which he took 11 minutes after he scored his brace to grab yet another Champions League hat trick, capitalizing on a counter attack to find himself some space to settle a pull back from Lucas Vázquez and touch it home.
Real Madrid’s 3-0 lead going into the second leg is huge, and might prove to be unassailable as they head to the Calderón. Atlético Madrid will never back down from a challenge, not while Simeone is in charge, but that’s a tall mountain to climb, even at home. By all appearances, we’re going to have Real Madrid in the Champions League final for the third time in four years, but first they have to finish the job.
Real Madrid: Keylor Navas; Marcelo, Raphaël Varane, Sergio Ramos, Dani Carvajal (Nacho 46’); Luka Modrić, Casemiro, Toni Kroos; Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema (Lucas Vázquez 78’), Isco (Marco Asensio 68’)
Goals: Ronaldo (10’, 73’, 84’)
Atlético Madrid: Jan Oblak; Filipe Luís, Stefan Savić, Diego Godín, Lucas Hernández; Koke, Gabi, Saúl Ñíguez (Nioclas Gaitan 58’), Yannick Carrasco (Angel Correa 68’); Kévin Gameiro (Fernando Torres 57’), Antoine Griezmann
Three things we learned
Karim Benzema is incredibly unlucky
Benzema has been a lightning rod of criticism among Real Madrid fans this season, with a lower-than-expected scoring rate and way too many high-profile misses, like he had a pair of in the first half of this match. It seems unlikely that he’s going to be a Real Madrid player for a whole lot longer, but the more important question is why he’s struggling.
If you sit down and watch Benzema play, he’s actually almost always doing the right thing. He finds the right places, he makes the right passes, he goes for the right finishes. But this season, he’s consistently been a half-beat off from his teammates, and even when he is on the right pace as he generally was on Tuesday, luck conspires against Benzema to ruin everything. An awkward deflection on a pass to him, a last-gasp block on his shots, an unfortunate slip as he sets — on and on it goes.
It’s like the big French forward is a magnet for bad luck. Hopefully for the good of his career, that magnetism doesn’t stick with him when he leaves the Bernabéu, because he can be truly magnificent when luck isn’t going against him.
Atlético Madrid need new fullbacks
Atlético have three good fullbacks in Filipe Luís, Juanfran, and Sime Vrsaljko, so reading that they need new fullbacks may sound strange. But with both Luis and Juanfran being both older and injury prone, and Vrsaljko just being injury prone, Atlético are open to risks with their players’ availability and fitness at a key position — and that risk cost them dearly in this match.
With both Juanfran and Vrsalkjo injured and unavailable on Tuesday, Diego Simeone had to start central defender Lucas Hernández at right back to face down Cristiano Ronaldo. That went predictably poorly, with the young French defender getting turned inside out by Ronaldo on a regular basis, putting tremendous pressure on Stefan Savic all game long as he tried to support his teammate while attempting to keep Atléti’s defensive shape. It also limited Atlético’s attack, as they weren’t able to get any meaningful support out wide from their fullbacks, limiting their attacking options severely.
Simply put, Atlético cannot afford to keep carrying that kind of risk. Luis and Juanfran are good players, but not so good that they can’t afford to dip into the transfer market to try to find a replacement or two. With much of the rest of their squad relatively well set, they can definitely spend some time seeing what they can dig up.
Raphaël Varane utterly shut down Antoine Griezmann
Real Madrid had one major objective coming into this match if they wanted to get a big lead in the tie: Keep Griezmann quiet. Thanks to a Herculean performance from Varane, they did exactly that, with the French defender essentially putting Griezmann in his pocket early in the match and keeping his countryman there all night long.
Every time Griezmann tried to make a clever run, Varane was there to put himself in the way. Every time Griezmann got on the ball, Varane was there to deny him space and force him to pass it back out of danger. Every time Griezmann lined up for a shot, Varane was in his face and spoiling his best angles. It was a masterclass performance, and showed exactly why Real were missing him so much while he was out injured.