Joselu the unlikely hero, but Real’s fight back was inevitable

MADRID — Before this Champions League semifinal second leg, coach Thomas Tuchel said his Bayern Munich players needed to “connect with their inner child” at the Santiago Bernabeu, remembering childhood dreams of playing in games like this.

On Wednesday, Real Madrid showed why in this competition, they are the grown-ups. This comeback win, beating Bayern 2-1 on the night and 4-3 on aggregate to go through to the final at Wembley on June 1, made it six Champions League final appearances in 11 seasons.

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Champions League success for Madrid, often in the unlikeliest of circumstances, has become routine.

No club — not even Bayern — can match the history and pedigree of Madrid’s 14 European Cups. No coach — not even Tuchel, who won this competition with Chelsea and lost a final with Paris Saint-Germain — can match Carlo Ancelotti’s six Champions League finals as a manager.

And no team can get anywhere near this Real Madrid for producing the impossible when it matters most. There were echoes here of 2022 and the logic-defying knockout stage run that saw them produce back-to-back home comebacks to eliminate PSG, Chelsea and Manchester City, having been second best each time.

So when Alphonso Davies‘ 68th-minute strike put Bayern 1-0 up on the night and 3-2 ahead on aggregate, Madrid didn’t fold. They’ve been here before. With a packed Bernabeu — noisier and more imposing than ever since its rebuild — roaring them on, they went for Bayern.

When substitute Joselu, who’s enjoying a glorious late-career renaissance at 34, made it 1-1 in the 88th minute, it wasn’t even a surprise. Of course Madrid would find a way. They always do. Three minutes later, Joselu had another. This time the home fans’ joy was momentarily delayed by an offside flag, soon corrected by VAR.

Joselu is a lifelong Madridista. Last time Madrid played a Champions League final, in Paris in 2022, he attended as a fan as they beat Liverpool 1-0. Now he has scored the goals which put Madrid back in another final. When the final whistle went, after 14 nervous minutes of added time, his teammates embraced him one by one, the crowd chanting his name.

Forwards Vinícius Júnior, Rodrygo and Jude Bellingham had scored the goals that got Madrid to this point — with 14 between them in the Champions League this season — but Joselu’s contribution on Wednesday might be the defining image of their European campaign. A night after Kylian Mbappé had failed to impress on the big stage, the man he might replace in the Madrid squad next season couldn’t have done any better.

Before that late drama, this had been an edgy night. A tight, goalless first half saw the best chance go Madrid’s way, Manuel Neuer tipping Vinicius’ shot onto the post before saving from Rodrygo.

Madrid dominated, playing 83 passes in the attacking third compared to Bayern’s 17. The visitors’ attacking focal point, Harry Kane, was restricted to just 14 first-half touches, the fewest of any player. He completed just one pass and had one — dangerous — shot.

The second half was more open from the start. Davies and Kane both went close, and so did Rodrygo and Vinicius at the other end, before Davies’ opener. A player linked with a move to Madrid all season, out of form and out of the Bayern team, now looked like being the night’s unexpected hero.

Ancelotti’s response was to quickly change the team. Luka Modric and Eduardo Camavinga came on in midfield, and Joselu and Brahim Díaz joined them in attack.

Joselu’s winning goal showed just how committed Madrid were to throwing everything forward, how much they believed in their chances of pulling off another comeback. One centre-back, Nacho, found another, Antonio Rüdiger, inside the Bayern box. Rudiger then crossed for Joselu to finish. There was no offside from either pass. Madrid were into the final, with another opportunity to add to their unmatched record in this competition.