When Real Madrid were 2-0 down on aggregate to Paris Saint-Germain and heading out of this season’s Champions League at the last-16 stage, one moment from the sidelines summed up this team’s resilience.
Moments after Kylian Mbappe seemed to put PSG into the last eight, the cameras cut to Real substitute Rodrygo, sat behind manager Carlo Ancelotti, who gestured his hands downwards to suggest a feeling of calm. It was as if he knew what was to come.
What followed in Real’s route to the final has been remarkable, yet consistent. Karim Benzema’s 15-minute hat-trick to down PSG, goals before and during extra time in a comeback win over Chelsea – and then that bizarre stoppage time recovery to knock out Manchester City in the semi-finals. Not even Hollywood writes scripts like these.
The pattern of those victories – particularly in the second legs at the Santiago Bernabeu – have also been similar. Real started the return fixtures poorly, conceded first, watched their opponents miss a host of chances to seal their respective progressions at Los Blancos’ expense, before Benzema led the comeback charge.
There has been a hint of fortune about Real reaching the final – especially considering how many opportunities their Champions League knockout opponents missed against them. Mbappe had two goals ruled out by VAR in the last-16, Christian Pulisic and Kai Havertz missed glaring chances for Chelsea in the quarter-finals and City’s Jack Grealish could have netted twice late on for Manchester City in the semi-final second leg.
Had Real come back from the depths of despair just the once, then many would point the finger towards luck being solely behind the La Liga side’s route to the final. But three times? All in the same manner? Against three teams who have reached the Champions League final in the past two years? It’s now a pattern – and it’s recognised by those both inside and outside of the club.
"The quality they have is no coincidence," said City boss Pep Guardiola before his Champions League semi-final loss to Real. "They have a high level in everything. The quality of Madrid is not by chance or luck. People who say they’re lucky – nothing of the sort."
"Let them think what they want," said Real midfielder Luka Modric when posed the same question about his side’s luck in the Champions League. "This is an unfair opinion and they only make us laugh, but everyone can say what they want.
"We have quality and character as well as history. This club has won many big games and is the one that has won the most Champions League titles. We never surrender."
So if it’s not luck – what is it then? What has Ancelotti done to keep Real in the Champions League, despite their best efforts to lose in every round?
Ancelotti’s super subs
The other common trend in Real’s run to the final is Ancelotti’s use of substitutes. In every second leg fixture in the knockout rounds, both Rodrygo and Eduardo Camavinga have come off the bench in the second half and made devastating impacts.
Rodrygo’s impact is more noticeable given the fact he helped knock Chelsea and Manchester City out with three late goals to force extra time in both rounds. In fact, the vast majority of his nine goals this season – seven to be exact – have been very similar in terms of first-time finishes within the six-yard box.
The Brazilian’s expert positioning and movement makes him a perfect player to come off the bench and turn around matches that aren’t going Real’s way. The 21-year-old has been doing it all season too – and not just in the Champions League knockout rounds.
Against Inter Milan in the group stages, the Real super-sub came off the bench to net a late winner at the San Siro with his now-trademark close-range finish. In another comeback win over Sevilla in April – this time in the league – Rodrygo touched the ball just nine times in 45 second-half minutes but picked up a goal and an assist in the process.
Yet Rodrygo has often been joined off the bench by French youngster Camavinga – who has been equally integral to Real’s run to the final – but the 19-year-old’s role has been more underrated.
Against Chelsea and City, Camavinga was responsible for two ‘second assists’ – the pass before the key pass – that mounted Real’s comeback in both matches. Against the Blues, the French international pinched the ball off N’Golo Kante and Ruben Loftus-Cheek high up the pitch to release Vinicius – who crossed for Benzema to head home the winner.
Against City, he actually had two key roles. The first: a delightful cross to Benzema who set up Rodrygo for his first of the evening. Then Camavinga was integral in Real’s winner once again, running from inside his own half to tee up Rodrygo for a cross that landed at Benzema’s feet, which drew a foul from Ruben Dias and a subsequent match-winning penalty.
Camavinga has sat behind the mercurial trio of Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Modric for most of the season but his energy off the bench has been integral to Real’s success. Los Blancos are able to step up an extra gear with his unpredictable passing from all over the pitch.
He can do it quickly too: Real failed to register a shot on target in the semi-final second-leg over City until Camavinga came on. Ederson was called into action just a minute after the Frenchman stepped off the bench.
Behind those switches, however, are Real boss Ancelotti and it’s his management of the club’s young players that has been a common theme this season. The Italian has adopted a type of ‘grandfather’ role to these youngsters which has allowed the likes of Rodrygo, Camavinga, Fede Valverde and Vinicius Junior – all aged 23 or under – to thrive for the Champions League finalists.
"Rodrygo, Camavinga, Valverde, [Eder] Militao and I are just starting to write our history at this club," said Vinicius this week. All are expected to play crucial roles in Paris this weekend.
Like a fine wine: Benzema and Modric
It’s needless to say that Real are only in the position they are in now – being La Liga champions and European finalists – due to the efforts of star striker Benzema.
His 27 league goals, alongside his 15 Champions League strikes in just 11 games, puts him at the top of the tree in terms of Ballon d’Or contenders and will undoubtedly be Liverpool’s dangerman to tame in the final.
A closer look at Benzema’s scoring statistics makes his season even more sensational. The Frenchman has 15 Champions League goals with an Expected Goals ratio of 8.6, meaning the difference between the two is higher than any of his rivals at the top of the competition’s goal charts – which includes Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah.
But it’s not just his clinical finishing that has guided Real to this Champions League final, but it’s his ability to produce in other moments that has caught the eye.
In the comeback win over PSG, his closing down of goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma for his first goal out of three was particularly poignant, given Real are not a very high-pressing team. Out of nowhere, Benzema sparked the revival he ended up overseeing.
Liverpool were the victims of another similar moment – his closing down of Loris Karius in the 2018 Champions League final – which shows how bold the French talisman can be on the biggest stage.
Add the deft touch for Rodrygo’s first goal against Manchester City and the clever way he won the penalty in extra-time in the same game, and Benzema has proven this season he is not just about the goals.
If Benzema impressing at the age of 34 is impressive, then midfielder Modric performing well at this highest level at 36 is astonishing.
The Croatian midfielder is still the heartbeat of this Real side and his statistics across many departments show how pivotal he is to the La Liga club’s overall game. Modric leads the way in terms of interceptions and big chances created – showing his impact on both penalty boxes.
Like Benzema, the 36-year-old has stepped up in the biggest moments. For Benzema’s second goal against PSG, his lung-bursting run freed up Vinicius down the left – with Modric then picking up the ball after it had been recycled to slip the Real striker into the penalty area to score.
And then there was that glorious pass for Rodrygo’s goal against Chelsea in the quarter-finals, which saved Real from elimination in the last eight.
Modric and Benzema may have a combined age of 70 – but they are central to Real’s chances of lifting the Champions League title this season.
Klopp on Real Madrid: They can be spectacular
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp speaking in a pre-match Champions League final press conference:
"If we took the last 10 minutes in all the last knockout matches [Real Madrid] had, they’re pretty much unbeatable, no chance [of winning]. The comebacks they had were really special.
"But these games were all longer than the last 10 minutes, and obviously they had to come back in these moments – the other teams were in the lead. In the PSG game, there were a lot of chances PSG missed which they usually don’t, and Madrid kept the door open – or PSG left the door open.
"For sure, this team is full of experience, they know exactly how to approach a game, especially a final. We felt that harshly in the 2018 final. They had a massive advantage that night, to us that was clear. Since then we gained a lot of experience ourselves which is very helpful.
"The [Madrid] team in all situations is full of confidence. They want situations with the ball, they are really calm on the ball, really relaxer here and there. The way they build up is very confident, technically they are at the highest level. It’s not overly complicated but that is good for them, football is not that complicated. They get the right players in the right positions. In the end, they get up front and they have different opportunities: the speed from the wingers, the flexibility presence from Benzema.
"If they have to, they can strike back three times in a spectacular way. These things aren’t guaranteed. It’s not as if I have to mention: if we are not 4-0 up with 10 minutes to go then they will definitely score five goals! It’s not like this, it’s clear they are able to do special stuff and we knew that anyway.
"We have to make sure our boys know how good they are if we let them do this, this and this and we can’t let them know how good they are. Their finishing of games is pretty impressive, that’s clear."