Real Madrid inflicted late Champions League heartbreak upon neighbors Atlético for the second season running as Javier “Chicharito” Hernández finally broke the deadlock in the tightest of quarterfinals with just two minutes remaining.
The derby encounter looked set for an extra 30 minutes following a goalless result at the Vicente Calderon last week and another backs-against-the-wall performance by Atlético at the Bernabeu. But, with Diego Simeone’s side down a man following a hotly debated second yellow card for Arda Turan with 14 minutes remaining, their resilience finally broke. Cristiano Ronaldo was the architect, playing a one-two with James Rodriguez and then squaring beyond Atlético goalkeeper Jan Oblak for Hernández to convert into an unguarded net.
For Atlético, it is more anguish in Europe’s premier competition, a year on from Sergio Ramos’ injury-time equalizer in the final in Lisbon and Real’s extra-time flurry. Atlético had not been beaten in seven matches against their city rivals since, but Hernández’s late contribution ensured that it is Real who march on into the last four and remain in with a chance to become the first team to win back-to-back Champions League titles.
And for that they have a most unlikely hero to thank. Hernández had made just six starts for Real Madrid in what has been a desperately frustrating season-long loan from Manchester United. But injuries to Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale meant he was thrown in alongside Ronaldo up front for what was Real’s biggest game of the season. For a long time it looked like it wasn’t going to be the Mexican’s night. In the second half he twice got in behind Atlético’s vaunted defense, but failed to find the back of the net. And for all their possession in both legs, Real Madrid couldn’t find a way past inspired Atlético stopper Oblak. Even Ronaldo was denied when put through late in the first half. Hernández, though, was to have the last word. And, while it is unlikely to extend his stay beyond this summer, he has left an indelible mark at the club he supported as a boy, giving a raucous Bernabeu crowd a long-awaited win over their local foes.
Real Madrid were certainly up against it going into the game, missing not only Bale and Benzema, but key midfield influence Luka Modric and left-back Marcelo. It left manager Carlo Ancelotti with some major decisions to make in a match that could have put the writing on the wall for his job prospects next season had the result gone the wrong way.
There was much surprise then that the Italian lined up with regular center-back Sergio Ramos in a midfield role. The only other occasion that Ancelotti had gone with that strategy in a big game, Real were beaten by Barcelona in his first Clasico in charge and the criticism from the Madrid press came thick and fast. The early signs were not overly impressive, and, in contrast to the first leg, Real failed to produce the intense start required to put Atlético under pressure.
Sights of goal were few and far between in a match where tension and niggle overrode free-flowing attacking play to an even greater extent than at the Calderon. In one of the rare early attacks of substance Hernández showed signs of being overawed by the big occasion when firing waywardly into the side netting.
But either side of halftime the hosts had two fine chances to break the deadlock. The first came after Mario Mandzukic, often dropping back along with forward partner Antoine Griezmann to form an extra wall for Real to bypass, was robbed in his own half by Dani Carvajal. Quickly Rodriguez found Ronaldo, who failed to beat Oblak and earned an earful from Hernández, who was wide open for a square pass. Ronaldo was to make amends with his fellow former Manchester United forward late on, but not before Hernández squandered further chances.
Shortly after the interval he scuffed a left-footed effort wide, and with 10 minutes remaining he broke in behind Diego Godin but saw Oblak get the faintest of touches to take his effort past the post. By that point the game’s most controversial moment and one that Atlético will undoubtedly rue for some time to come had already occurred. While the often hot-headed Arda was perhaps foolish to go in with a high boot trying to block a clearance from Ramos when already on a yellow card, in the context of such a physically bruising encounter, it seemed a soft way for a player to be sent off.
Even before being faced with a numerical disadvantage, Atlético had set their stall out to sit back. There was some surprise when their top scorer this season and the man whose pace gave Atlético the best chance of prospering on the counter attack, Griezmann was taken off midway through the second half. And in hindsight, Simeone may regret being quite so negative against a weakened Real Madrid lineup, But he certainly had little choice once his side were put down to 10 man. It was now just a matter of holding on and hoping for a set-piece or penalties.
José María Giménez was introduced to give Atlético another body at the back, but within two minutes of coming on the Uruguayan couldn’t keep track of Hernández, and the tie had been decided. Just as in last year’s final, Atlético had nothing left to give and Real and Ancelotti had survived.