Thank you Roma and Juventus for reviving the Champions League
For a moment it looked like Juventus were going to go one better than Serie A rivals Roma had the evening before. With just a minute left, the Old Lady was level on the aggregate scoreboard with Real Madrid, having hauled back a 3-0 defeat from the first leg. Then, in the blink of an eye, chaos.
Cristiano Ronaldo headed down a cross. Lucas Vazquez waited to guide it past an exposed Gigi Buffon. Mehdi Benatia appeared from behind like a cross between the Flash and AJ Styles coming off the top rope. Vazquez crumpled in true WWE fashion. Michael Oliver awarded a penalty. Buffon went berserk.
The Italian saw red. Arguments broke out everywhere in the Santiago Bernabeu. In the press box, Italian journalists had to be separated from their Spanish counterparts. The brilliant magic that had been woven throughout the evening descended into dark sorcery.
Four minutes later, Ronaldo stepped up to the spot to face Wojciech Szczesny, inhaled deeply, then smashed the ball into the side netting, sealing Real Madrid’s progression into the semi-finals of a competition that now seemingly has their name on it.
The magic was completely dead. Juventus fans cried in anger, watching their side come so close to the greatest comeback in the history of football's last 24 hours. The Bianconeri will be hard pressed to see any positives in what happened. For the neutrals, though, the magic will live on. Like Roma’s defeat of Barcelona, Juventus’ performance provided the Champions League with a much-needed shot in the arm.
Real Madrid’s domination in the last few years has helped to remove some of the shine from Europe’s premier club competition. Rather than exciting, it has become predictable.
Before La Undecima and La Duodecima, the fact no one had gone back-to-back in the Champions League era provided an allure and layer of mystique to the competition. Winning the title Champions of Europe was no easy feat, keeping it all but impossible.
Madrid removed that illusion by methodically dismantling opponents throughout the 2016/17 competition, finishing with that emphatic 4-1 victory over Juventus, responding to Mario Mandzukic's audacious bicycle kick in much the same manner the Spanish government responded to the unsanctioned Catalan independence referendum. They systematically removed all the romance from a competition once steeped in it.
To be frank, the Champions League has become boring. It has been a case of the same sides reaching the same rounds with little variation. There have been various high moments, such as Monaco’s exciting youngsters or Barcelona’s ‘Remontada’ but even the latter was a case of a giant succeeding. There’s no fun in that if you're not wearing the giant's shirt.
Roma and Juventus have reignited the mystique and magic of the Champions League. They've shown that the underdog, particularly in Roma’s case, can win. And fair play to Sevilla for doing likewise in the round of 16 against Manchester United. Competition is a good thing for an event referred to as a competition.
Like Barcelona’s superstars, those from Madrid were shocked. You could see in their faces. They did not understand what was happening. For those of us who like to see David giving Goliath a black eye, it provided excellent entertainment. Juventus may have ended the evening in heartbreak but the performance they put in, like Roma’s, was heartwarming.
We should all be grateful. Without them, this year’s Champions League would have been nothing but a repetition of the last two. That is good for absolutely nobody. Instead, we have been reminded why the Champions League is the best club competition in world football. Forza Roma. Forza Juventus. Grazie.