Real Madrid and Karim Benzema have each endured rather underwhelming seasons so far by their own high standards but both know how to rise to a big occasion.
Benzema’s double knocked out Bayern Munich on Tuesday and sent Real through to their fourth Champions League final in five years, thanks to a 2-2 draw on the night and a 4-3 win on aggregate.
That Benzema proved the difference was testament to the bravery of Zinedine Zidane, who in picking the striker ignored the whistles of Real’s fans in recent weeks as well as a miserable scoring run that showed him scoring just once in 12 matches.
But it was also credit to Benzema, whose weaving run led to Isco’s decisive goal against Atletico Madrid in the semis last year and who scored the winner in 2014, also in the semis, also against Bayern, in a 1-0 win in the first leg.
France may be wondering what they will be missing at the World Cup in Russia this summer.
“I expected him to score goals again,” Zidane said. “He has got two and he has given us the chance to go through.”
Benzema’s latest contribution was not entirely of his own making given his second at the Santiago Bernabeu was a gift, presented after a poor backpass from Corentin Tolisso and an even worse attempt to clear by Bayern goalkeeper Sven Ulreich.
But his habit of delivering when it matters most is not down to luck, just as Real scrapping to another European final is not undeserved.
Real, out of sight in La Liga, were outplayed by Bayern for much of the tie, with the Germans reeling off 39 shots across the two games to their 16.
Their progress owed gratitude both to Bayern’s individual errors and the generosity of referee Cuneyt Cakır, who failed to spot a Marcelo handball at 1-1, just before half-time.
“If I tell you that the ball has not touched my hand, I’m a liar,” Marcelo said afterwards. Dani Carvajal was similarly fortunate in the first leg.
Barcelona daily, Sport, wrote on Wednesday: “It was a terrible match from Zidane’s team, who played with fire and were mostly outplayed by Bayern at the Bernabeu.”
Germany’s Die Welt attributed the win to Bayern’s mistakes. “Tolisso lost his mind, Ulreich too. The Bavarians had their ticket to the final stolen in Madrid.”
But this is not Real’s first scrap in Europe this season. They snatched victory from the jaws of defeat against Juventus in the previous round too, having been blown away in the second leg. Real have belief, guts and experience.
“They needed a bit of luck but they had it,” Bayern defender Mats Hummels said. “We made big mistakes and maybe that is a quality as well, not to make these mistakes.”
Liverpool or Roma now await in the final on May 26, with all three teams left sitting third in their domestic divisions, a reminder that the Champions League rewards impact over consistency.
First, Real head to Barcelona for Sunday’s ‘clasico’, a match between the unbeaten La Liga champions and, perhaps, the European champions for a third year in a row.
In terms of the league, the game carries minimal significance but there is a wider debate brewing in Spain about whose is the better season if Real go on to triumph in Kiev.
Barcelona, dumped out of the Champions League by Roma, but domestic double winners, or Real, sitting 15 points adrift in La Liga but within touching distance of making history in Europe.
“You always have to believe,” Real captain Sergio Ramos said. “Real’s DNA pushes you to fight until the end, we know how to stay together and suffer and that has taken us to the final. That is the soul of this team.”