It’s starting to get silly, the extent to which the universe wants Real Madrid to win three in row. On Tuesday night against Bayern Munich, they were second best in almost every department except, crucially, the department of having opposition goalkeepers leap out of the way the ball at exactly the worst moment. And that’s not even a real department.
Oh Sven Ulreich. What did you do? What have you done? Let’s take it apart and find out.
1. Options (I)
That man there, surrounded by a cross of Real Madrid players, is Corentin Tolisso. He’s in an uncomfortable position, under pressure, and with no obvious outs. There’s a teammate close to the touchline, but he’s in an even worse position; there’s another out of shot to the left, but that path is blocked. He’s short on time, and there’s harassment coming from midfield. So he turns to shield the ball, and then he remembers. He’s got a goalkeeper.
2. Options (II)
Passing across your own box is always, always, always a terrible idea, but to be fair to Tolisso, there’s quite a lot of space to aim for. Madrid have got four players over on this side, which means the other is almost entirely empty. Hammer it across, give it a bit of air, and the worst outcome is something like: Mats Hummels has to break into a light jog.
3. Don’t roll the thing slowly, though, for God’s sake
Tolisso would have looked so clever if this had worked. So calm, so composed. So cool. And all he needed was for Karim Benzema to cease existing for just a few crucial seconds. Given the regularity with which Benzema vanishes, was that really too much to ask?
4. The agony of the understudy
Sven Ulreich, who is not Manuel Neuer, has had a pretty decent season for somebody that isn’t MNeuer. He’s made some important saves, he’s won a title, he’s got to the semifinals of the Champions League, all while being ontologically distinct from Neuer. But there are times, as with the picture above, where you look at him and think: oh dear, he’s really not Neuer. He’s barely half of Neuer.
5. Like ...
... there’s just no way Benzema keeps his cool with this walloping hunk of goalkeeping meat advancing towards him, mittens at the ready.
6. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no
We may never know precisely why Ulreich’s brain decided to eschew the sensible option — hammer the thing into the night sky — in favour of shaping to collect the ball with his hands. Did he forget that the backpass rule was a thing that has been added to the game of soccer? Probably not. He was four when it came in.
Perhaps he was swayed by the form. After all, in shape and in direction this looks as much like a bad pass to Benzema from a Real Madrid player as it does a bad backpass to Ulreich from a Bayern Munich player. I’ll just scoot out, slide into it, pick it up and get the attack going on the other flank. Bit weird that the shirt-swapping’s started already, but maybe that’s just OH NO, I HAVE TO KICK IT, MY LEG IS ALL THE WAY OVER HERE, OH NO.
The kicker to all that is the fact that indirect free-kicks within the box are, on the whole pretty rubbish goalscoring opportunities. Particularly since Madrid are only ever going to roll the ball sideways to wherever Ronaldo is standing. Pack the goal and rush him. No worries.
7. Where’s the ball gone?
Of all the TV game shows that have collapsed out of the human imagination, Hole in the Wall has always had a special and appalling beauty. The implacability of the onrushing wall, the absurd contortions required for compliance and survival, the instant degradation meted out for even the slightest miscalculation ... all game shows are, at some level, bleak evocations of the place of the human being within the soul grinder of late capitalism, but HotW was impishly on the nose about it.
Anyway, what Ulreich gets up to here is, somehow, exactly the opposite. The ball trundles on and he, bound by panic and the sudden realisation that he can’t use his hands, becomes the wall. He reshapes himself around the ball; he twists his body through impossible angles, trashing his reputation in the process, because he must get his hands out of the way. Not entirely sure what this does to the allegory — maybe the ball is financial and personal responsibility, and Ulreich the avocado-snorting millennial? Call me, opinion editors, my rates are reasonable — but he definitely ends up looking silly. And that’s the important bit.
8. Spot the ball
It’s a shame, really. Ulreich’s body shape here is actually quite lovely, his (not-)kicking leg countered by that daringly out-thrust arm. This would have been a beautiful clearance had he, y’know, cleared it. It even looks like Mats Hummels is ducking out of the way of the ball that Ulreich hasn’t sent flying towards his face.
Hey, maybe the National Kicking Things Really Far Association is looking for its Jerry West.
Some howlers are punished instantly. Here, Ulreich has time to turn, to crouch on hands and knees, to watch, and to think. To hope, maybe to pray. And to realise.
For as Ulreich waits, the knowledge sinks in. The only thing that can save him now is if Karim Benzema, a very good footballer, does something ridiculous. Something unthinkable. Something unbelievable. Something, in fact, of the same magnitude of weirdness as the thing that he, Ulreich, has just done. In the biggest game of his career. In front of all these people. In th— ah, no, he’s scored it.