Real Madrid have Tuchel and Stoke City to thank for another Champions League final

Will Ford
Joselu Real Madrid
Joselu scored two goals from his first three touches for Real Madrid.

Thomas Tuchel played it perfectly until he didn’t, in a game Bayern Munich had won before the Stoke City cast-offs entered the mix to turn the tide in Real Madrid’s favour.

After half an hour, amid growing desperation to find something of note to talk about in the Champions League semi-final, but without straying from the TNT Sports mandate of making relatively dull games of football The Best Thing You’ve Ever Seen, Darren Fletcher said “it’s the Toni Kroos pass academy tonight.” “Yep, and we’re loving it,” Rio Ferdinand replied.

Were we? By that point Kroos had completed 49 passes, but none of them ‘key passes’ like his brilliant assist for Vinicius Junior last week. He was metronomic, which can be taken as a compliment. He didn’t lose the ball, which again can be seen as a good thing, but isn’t necessarily. It was all very safe; not just Kroos, everything.

Fletcher summed up the first half by labelling it “a game of cat and mouse”, a well known commentatary euphemism for boring. “You’re just waiting for one of the big players to blow this game wide open,” he added, and thankfully – for the neutrals who had thus far seen a group of players do little other than pass the ball sideways and give up possession – Vinicius Junior apparently remembered during the half-time break that he’s very, very good at football.

Joshua Kimmich was reminded of the Brazilian’s brilliance near enough every time Real Madrid got the ball for for the first 20 minutes of the second half. And the rather crude tactic of getting the ball to the area of the pitch in which there was the greatest speed mismatch looked as though it would at some point pay dividends: Vinicius had Kimmich on skates.

The left winger got to the byline on mutiple occasions – essentially, whenever he fancied it – and pulled one cross back for compatriot Rodrygo, who should have done better. And having duped Kimmich into thinking he would always go to the defender’s right, Vinicius went the other way, dribbling across the box and forcing a brilliant Manuel Nueur save with a bullet shot.

The German goalkeeper, the hero in that instance and others, in this game and right across his 13-year Bayern Munich career, later became the villain.

Alphonso Davies had given Bayern the lead with the very goal Thomas Tuchel will have dreamed of his side scoring at the Bernabeu, in a game going precisely as planned. Jamal Musiala wriggled away from a challenge in his own box before Harry Kane swept the ball out to Davies, who cut inside and smashed his shot past Andriy Lunin.

Tuchel will get some stick for his substitutions, which were particularly costly as they chased the game in the final few minues without Kane, Musiala or Leroy Sane, but from the point that Bayern scored in the 68th minute to when Madrid equalised in the 88th, the home side actually created relatively little.

Perhaps as much as Tuchel’s missteps, we should be marvelling at Carlo Ancelotti calling on Joselu, and the former Stoke City striker scoring goals with his first and third touches from the bench. He followed in Vinicius’ tame shot to equalise, finishing between Neuer’s legs after the goalkeeper allowed the ball to his chest and bounce out of reach, and then shinned in Antonio Rudiger’s cross less than three minutes later, with the goal given after a VAR review having initially been ruled out for offside.

It’s yet another case of Real Madrid snatching a Champions League victory from the jaws of defeat. And once they got one, it always felt like they would get two. But as will always be the case for a defeated manager, Tuchel will be wondering what he could have done differently, and – once he’s over the fact his side had what looked like a perfectly good late equaliser ruled out for offside because of a flag-happy linesman – will surely rue the changes he made in the second half.

Kane didn’t need to come off. Even if Joselu hadn’t scored the winner, Bayern would have been playing extra-time without the guy who’s scored 44 goals for them this season, and is near enough a sure thing to score in a penalty shootout. Bringing Kim Min-jae on was, in hindsight, another odd decision. The logic is sound – more defenders equals more solidity. But Eric Dier and Matthijs de Ligt had looked comfortable beforehand, and – as Paul Scholes said in the studio after the game – the change of formation “created confusion”.

The lesson for Thomas Tuchel: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The lesson for Carlo Ancelotti: If in doubt, trust in Stoke City cast-offs and the inevitability of Real Madrid in the Champions League.

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