Cristiano Ronaldo bent his knees in time to the clapping that rang round the Santiago Bernabéu, took a deep breath, shoulders heaving, and began his run‑up, hitting the ball past the wall and into the net to complete his hat-trick and carry Real Madrid through to the Champions League semi‑final.
There were 13 minutes to play and nervous moments ahead but his 14th, 15th and 16th goals in this year’s European competition were enough to overturn a 2-0 deficit from the first leg.
As the ball hit the net, Ronaldo raced to the corner, celebrating a dramatic comeback. It wasn’t over yet but Madrid were close now and for the first time in more than two-and-a-half hours of football, they were in front on aggregate.
Wolfsburg could not find the away goal that would change everything – nor could Madrid end the nerves with a fourth before the final whistle sounded, Karim Benzema and Jesé both forcing saves. Ultimately, though, this was the goal that won it.
After eight failed attempts at European comebacks over the past decade, Madrid had finally succeeded, their reward a sixth successive semi-final. Few had expected it to take so long when Madrid had opened the scoring after quarter of an hour, still less when they had doubled that lead, but here at last they were.
Amid all the talk of epic nights and heroism, Luka Modric had warned: “We have to have a cool head, be patient and play football. We’re not going to settle this in five minutes.”
No, but they did draw level in two. Twice Dani Carvajal ran at Wolfsburg and twice Ronaldo scored: 86 seconds had gone by between the two goals. First, Carvajal’s cross reached Ronaldo at the far post, then another delivery seeking him resulted in a corner from which the Portugal international headed in.
Wolfsburg’s plan was in pieces, although ditching it may well have been beneficial to them, or so it seemed. They had appeared fearful and things became worse when Julian Draxler was forced off, the difference between the two teams so great that the only doubt was how Madrid ever found themselves in this mess in the first place. Yet Wolfsburg did now take a step up to play a game they had previously hoped to see pass by.
Josuha Guilavogui’s long shot drew an easy save from Keylor Navas and Bruno Henrique wasted a wonderful chance, hesitating on the edge of the six-yard box before half-time.
A new game opened up: all square, 45 minutes to play. The risk for Real, of course, lay in the value given to any goals Wolfsburg could score and the later the game got, the finer the margins would become, the greater the tension.
There were some moments of doubt, too, notably when Dante failed to connect properly with a close-range header, every chance a collective coronary.
Madrid, though, pressed for the third and if the chances were not always clearcut, the pressure built. Madrid thought they had it on 65 minutes when Sergio Ramos leapt to head a corner off the post, along the line and, somehow, into the hands of Diego Benaglio – and did eventually get it 12 minutes later. This was to prove definitive.
Modric was brought down just outside the area and Ronaldo stood over the ball, the defensive wall and a semi‑final place opening up before him.
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