Turin: Not long after Cristiano Ronaldo scored the first of his three goals, as belief, rather than hope, pulsed around the stadium, as Juventus’ fans bounced and sang and roared, Mario Mandzukic turned inside, and floated a cross into Atletico Madrid’s box.
He misjudged the weight of the pass, just a little: a few inches too high for his target, Fernando Bernardeschi. He refused to give up and somehow got a shot away that just missed the target. No matter. It was one opportunity lost. Another would surely soon be on its way.
The Champions League is a tournament has, in recent years, discarded the very notion of unlikely. With every year that passes, it seems to stretch the bounds of credulity a little further. There is something in the air on these nights that encourages players and teams to give something — to give anything — a go. It is a competition of you-never-know, of why-not. It is the place where overhead kicks go in.
Indeed, by recent standards, it is hard to categorise what happened here on Tuesday as any sort of seismic shock. Yes, Juventus recovered from two goals down in the first leg to win by 3-0, and reach the quarter-finals. Yes, Atletico, for so long regarded as football’s most obdurate, unyielding opponent, collapsed into themselves, Diego Simeone’s players succumbing to their fate with barely a whimper.
Of course, Juventus’s progression was improbable, but it did not feel impossible. In part, that can be attributed to the mere presence of Ronaldo, the player Juventus signed because the club’s hierarchy believed him to be as close to a guarantee in this competition as can be imagined.
Ronaldo had scored only one goal in his past nine Champions League games. As has been the case every year for the past few, it had become acceptable to wonder if his brilliance was starting to fade.
No, as it turns out. This is his stage, and these are his games. He comes alive when the world is watching, when there is a chance to be a hero. He feeds off it. Obviously he was going to score the goals — two towering headers — that drew Juventus level. And who else, exactly, was going to take the penalty, won by Bernardeschi, that sent manager Massimiliano Allegri’s team through?
“This was why Juventus brought me here, to help do things that they have never done before,” said Ronaldo. “It was always going to be a special night and it was — not only for the goals but for the team.
“This is the mentality you need to win in the Champions League. We enjoyed a magical night. Atletico were a difficult team but we were strong too. We will see what will happen.”
But it was not simply the confidence that comes with the player who is, by almost every metric, the greatest Champions League player of all time that fed Juventus’ conviction. Juve need only to have seen what happened last week — Ajax eliminating Real Madrid after losing the first leg at home; Manchester United’s reserves eliminating Paris St-Germain after losing the first leg at home — to feel that their task was not too onerous.
Those are just the most recent examples. Last year, Roma overturned a three-goal deficit against no less than Barcelona to reach the semi-finals.
And, of course, 12 months earlier came the most remarkable of them all: Barcelona’s 6-1 comeback to recover from four goals down against PSG.
Games are much more open these days, much more exciting, much more chaotic; and when an opponent can wrest the momentum and possession from them, it makes even the top teams much more vulnerable. They are placed in a situation they do not have a great deal of experience in handling. They are powerless to resist. Perhaps that is what has created this version of the Champions League, where anything can happen, where improbable is not enough and impossible might not be, too, where it is worth giving something, no matter how fantastical, a go.