Cristiano Ronaldo fired a hat-trick to lead Real Madrid back from the brink of disaster and into the Champions League semifinals after a 3-0 win at the Bernabeu gave them a 3-2 aggregate triumph over Wolfsburg. A woeful 2-0 defeat in Germany last week left Madrid staring at elimination before the semifinal stage for the first time in six years.
But they got the perfect start in the return encounter, with Ronaldo scoring twice in 86 seconds before the 20-minute mark to put the hosts right back on level terms. While Wolfsburg were able to stem the bleeding, Ronaldo fired a free-kick through a gap in the wall to clinch Madrid’s progress.
A dreadful display at the Volkswagen Arena meant the Spanish giants were not only facing a Champions League exit but also the effective end of their season. But in just seven days Real Madrid, and the tenure of coach Zinedine Zidane, have been spectacularly ignited. On Saturday they cut their gap at the top of La Liga to just four points and they have now become just the third team in the Champions League era to win a knockout tie after losing the first-leg 2-0.
And for that they have the man who has so often been their talisman to thank. With his treble, the three-time Ballon d’Or winner now has 16 goals in the Champions League this season, already only one shy of his record mark in the competition.
Having appealed for the full backing of the Bernabeu crowd in the buildup to what was billed as a huge night for the Spanish giants, it took just 15 minutes for Ronaldo to spark his team’s fight back. After an error from Max Arnold, Dani Carvajal’s cross deflected to the back post past a static Wolfsburg defense for Ronaldo to finish from close range. Before Wolfsburg could even gather themselves, their advantage had been erased. Ronaldo this time getting to a Toni Kroos near-post corner first and heading down and into the net.
At that point it appeared Real Madrid would go on to secure their progress at a canter. Instead, the tension returned and was growing the longer the scores remained level and the prospect of extra time and possible penalties loomed increasingly large. Ronaldo, though, was there to settle the nerves when Wolfsburg’s wall inexplicably parted and allowed his strike to find its way through and past goalkeeper Diego Benaglio.
The dominant feeling for Madrid must surely be one of relief. The cost of failure was certainly high going into the encounter. In a competition Real Madrid have won 10 times and value above every other, elimination by a team sitting eighth in the Bundesliga and regarded as the weakest of the quarterfinalists would not have gone down well. And for Zidane, who only took over in January, it would have dealt his chances of keeping his job beyond this season a major blow.
He required his team to put in a far more committed, organized performance than a week ago, and that’s exactly what he got. Madrid pressed intensely early on an hit the crossbar in just the sixth minute through Sergio Ramos.
Wolfsburg failed to heed the warning and the lead they had shocked many by building up at home was eradicated. The swiftness by which Real Madrid git back on level terms was just what the hosts needed, even if it only reinforced the fact that they should never been in such a perilous position in the first place.
Wolfsburg’s defending had looked shaky in the first leg and was was badly exposed for both Ronaldo’s early goals. Dieter Hecking’s side also had nothing like the same joy they enjoyed last week against Real Madrid’s defense this time around. Their one big chance against a backline that was boosted by the inclusion of Carvajal in place of Danilo came late in the first half when Bruno Henrique dallied in the box and saw his shot blocked by Marcelo.
It appeared the crucial third goal for Madrid had arrived midway through the second half, when Ramos’ header struck a post and bobbled across the line before appearing to have been knocked over it by Benaglio. But the goalkeeper instantly clawed it back and, without the aid of goal-line technology, the official behind the goal declared the line had not been fully breached.
It was not to matter, thanks to Ronaldo’s record 93rd career Champions League goal. But Real Madrid will surely not get the chance to atone in a similar way whoever they are drawn against in the semifinals.