MADRID — For 95 minutes, this was the Champions League as it imagines itself to be. Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, European soccer’s two ultimate aristocrats, relentlessly trading blows, a game of boundless adrenaline, deafening noise and unbearable tension, glittering with stardust.
For the other minute, the one that decided it, the one that ensured Real Madrid will contest a third consecutive final and stands, now, on the cusp of winning the competition for the third time in a row, it was a scratch game in a park, a slapstick routine, a high, public farce.
It is a moment that will haunt Sven Ulreich, Bayern’s goalkeeper, and Corentin Tolisso, its French midfielder, for some time. Two minutes into the second half, the score standing at 1-1 on the night, and 3-2 to Real on aggregate, the game finely poised, Tolisso attempted to pass the ball back to Ulreich.
He judged the weight on the ball poorly: it gave Karim Benzema, the striker who had scored Real’s first goal, enough encouragement to try to chase it down. The greater error was to come: Ulreich, racing from his line, seemed to pause momentarily, unsure whether to play the ball with his feet or to collect it with his hands, conceding a free kick. He did neither. He wafted a leg over the ball, skating and skidding as it slipped under his body. Benzema, still running, tapped the ball into the empty net.
That James Rodriguez — on loan to Bayern from Real Madrid — quickly drew Bayern level will be of little solace to Ulreich. It guaranteed the final 30 minutes of the game were played out in an anxious, fractious Santiago Bernabeu, but to no avail. Bayern could not find the third goal that would have eliminated Real. He must live with his personal, public sorrow.
Bayern only has itself to blame. The first leg, in Munich last week, was decided by a moment of carelessness, too, Rafinha’s poor pass setting Madrid, and Marco Asensio, clear to score the goal which gave the reigning champion its advantage. This was a semifinal settled not by Real’s brilliance — Bayern was the better team on Tuesday — but by Bayern’s momentary brainlessness.
In both games, the German champion created enough chances to win, and to offer encouragement to Liverpool and A.S. Roma, the remaining semifinalists, that Real Madrid will not be invulnerable in the final in Kiev.
Joshua Kimmich scored within three minutes here — Benzema equalized after 10, the game chaotic from the start — and only a combination of Keylor Navas, Real Madrid’s goalkeeper, and blind fortune, in the form of two or three spurned golden chances and at least one penalty that Cuneyt Cakir, the Turkish referee, failed to spot, kept Bayern at bay.
It is not the first time Real Madrid has pushed its luck on the way to the final: it was only saved from extra time against Juventus in the quarterfinals by a last-minute penalty. That it has flirted with elimination so often will give its opponent in the final hope. That it always finds a way through should soon douse it.