European football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball around for 180 minutes and at the end, Real Madrid – somehow – always win.

There’s a famous saying among Madridistas:

“90 minuti en el Bernabéu son molto longo.”

Ironically, it’s an Italian phrase, coined by Real Madrid forward Juanito in the 1980s.

After a 2-0 defeat against Inter in the first leg of the 1984-85 UEFA Cup at San Siro, Juanito famously warned the Serie A side, “90 minutes in the Bernabéu is a very long time.”

Although a native Spaniard, Juanito presumably translated the phrase into Italian for the benefit of the Inter players. Sounds like a considerate guy.

Juanito lived up to his promise and Madrid promptly won the return leg 3-0 before lifting the trophy in the final that followed.

Although that particular example is from the UEFA Cup, it captures the aura and self-belief that surrounds Real Madrid in European cup competitions. It’s almost as if it is their destiny to win. They are ordained with their name on the trophy.

And in no competition has that been truer than in the European Cup.

Los Blancos have won the prestigious competition 14 times. That’s twice the number of Milan, who are second with seven, and as many as Liverpool, Barcelona and Manchester United combined.

When you drill down into how Real Madrid have won those 14 trophies, what’s remarkable is how condensed they are. Almost as if the unstoppable machine needs time to get whirring.

Madrid won the first five European Cups between 1955 and 1960. They then won just one in the subsequent 38 years (in 1965). Then came a run of three in five seasons between 1997 and 2002, followed by 12 years of agony as they waited for “La Décima”.

Title number 10 finally came in 2014. Since then, Real Madrid have won five of the last 10 Champions League tournaments. No other side has won it more than once in that time.

It’s been a remarkable decade of dominance, and between them, Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane have presided over a true Champions League dynasty.

What’s curious though, is Real Madrid have arguably not been the best European club side in that period. They’ve not even been the most successful club in Spain, with their three La Liga titles since 2013-14 behind Barcelona’s five – although they will add a fourth this year. And even in the Champions League tournaments they have won, they’ve often not even been the best team in the competition.

But when it comes to European knockout football, particularly at the Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid are never dead. They have a unique ability – forged in the fires of their history – to find ways to win ties when they look dead and buried.

Coming through their quarter-final matchup against Manchester City was just the latest example.

Ancelotti’s side were comfortably second best against City – conceding 23 more shots and 1.45 more expected goals (xG) over the course of the two games – yet they embraced the suffering, defended for their lives, and scraped through on penalties.

Liverpool 0-1 Real Madrid Champions League Final xG stats

Sometimes rational analysis goes out the window when looking at Real Madrid’s history in this competition. But, considering who we are here at Opta Analyst, we’ll try to apply some anyway.

Opta have expected goals data on the UEFA Champions League dating back to 2010-11. And we can use it to quantify just how incredibly resolute Real Madrid are in this competition.

Since 2010-11, Los Blancos have ‘lost’ the expected goals battle in 25 different knockout matches.

Remarkably, they’ve lost just nine of those games, winning 10 and drawing six.

To put that another way, historically speaking, Real Madrid are more likely to win a game they “should” lose, rather than actually lose it.

Nine defeats in 25 games gives them a 36% losing rate in games where the opposition generate better goalscoring chances than them.

That ranks way ahead of some of the competition’s biggest clubs over that timeframe, while Madrid are the only team to have a winning record in such matches.

UCL record when losing on xG

Ancelotti’s side have a remarkable capacity to absorb punches, do just about enough to stay in matches, and then rely on their superstars to step up and produce moments of magic.

And boy have there been plenty of examples of those. Their last five Champions League triumphs have all contained moments where an individual or individuals came to the rescue.

In 2013-14, they needed a stoppage-time equaliser from Sergio Ramos to force the final into extra-time against Atlético Madrid. Gareth Bale then produced a dazzling display during the extra period to fire Madrid to victory.

In 2016, they beat Atlético again, this time on penalties. Ramos was the hero again that day, despite his goal looking marginally offside.

There was the 4-2 epic second leg against Bayern Munich in 2017, where multiple decisions went Madrid’s way. Then three goals in seven crazy extra-time minutes, including Cristiano Ronaldo completing his hat-trick, proved devastating for the Bavarians.

In 2018, a controversial 98th-minute Ronaldo penalty won the quarter-final tie against Juventus. Gianluigi Buffon was so incensed with the penalty award that he was sent off.

The most ridiculous of the lot was probably 2021-22, with miraculous moments occurring in three consecutive rounds. Losing at home to Chelsea in the quarter-final second leg and seemingly down and out, Luka Modric delivered an incredible outside-of-the-boot assist for Rodrygo to score with 10 minutes to go. That sent the game into extra-time, when Karim Benzema headed in the winner.  

Against Manchester City in the semi-final, Pep Guardiola’s side were in total command and heading through. But two goals in two wild minutes from Rodryo sent the game into extra-time. Once again, Benzema won the tie, this time with a penalty.

And then the final, Thibaut Courtois put in a goalkeeping performance for the ages. The Belgian recorded nine saves – the most in a Champions League final – on the way to becoming just the third goalkeeper to win the Man of the Match award in the showpiece event.

What those examples show, perhaps Courtois’ heorics aside, is that in mere moments Real Madrid are capable of turning things around completely on the pitch. A team littered with the attacking talent of Ronaldo, Bale, Benzema, Toni Kroos and Modric can endure difficult moments during games – often for large spells at a time – because they always back themselves to get out of it, to come up clutch when it really matters; to deliver those big moments.

It’s difficult to measure the mental side of the game with numbers. But since 2010-11, Real Madrid have converted a higher percentage of their big chances – a shot that Opta define as a situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score – than any other team to have had 30 or more such chances in knockout matches. Real Madrid have been more clinical than anyone else when it matters most.

It’s not just in attack that they’ve had a team littered with superstars though. Overperforming in defence is one of the things that Madrid have also been better at than anyone else.

Ramos and Pepe at the heart of defence together with full-backs Dani Carvajal and Marcelo formed a generational back four. With Casemiro in front and either Keylor Navas or Courtois in goal, is it any surprise they’ve been such a difficult opponent to crack?

In fact, no team in recorded Champions League history has overperformed defensively in as many matches as Real Madrid have when it comes to the knockout stages. In 38 different knockout matches, Madrid conceded fewer goals than the underlying numbers suggest they should have done.

UCL Knockout Stages - Overperforming xGA

At the other end of the pitch, only Bayern Munich (26 times) have had more knockout matches in which they’ve outperformed their attacking xG numbers than Madrid’s 24.

Those numbers will be boosted by the sheer volume of games that Madrid have played in the knockout stages since 2010-11, but you cannot argue against their ability to perform in both boxes at the highest level.

We need to attribute some of this success to Real Madrid’s managers. In Zidane and Ancelotti, they’ve had two coaches who are famous for letting their players improvise in the final third. They put greater emphasis on the individual, rather than the system as a collective. Doing that gives world-class players a platform to thrive; the opportunity to single-handedly decide a game with a moment of brilliance.

Sure, the players still need to execute. Do it once and you start to feel like you can do it again. Do it three years in a row, or five times in the last decade, and you start to feel like it’s your destiny.

It sounds like Juanito was on to something after all.

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