Cristiano Ronaldo fires in the third. Photograph: Lars Baron/Getty Images
The Bernabéu bounced and burst into song, the lyrics ringing around the arena echoing the words that had adorned the huge banner unfurled at the south end before the kick-off. “Tell me how it feels,” they gloated. High in the north end, Atlético’s supporters sat in silence, stunned. This felt terrible. It was happening again, the pain unbearable. For a fourth consecutive year, they had met their rivals and for a fourth consecutive year they had fallen.
There will be a second leg to this Champions League semi-final but like all those derbies Atlético thought they had left behind it is likely to be irrelevant, even if Zinedine Zidane insisted it was not done.
“Football is wonderful because unexpected things can happen,” Diego Simeone said but the Atlético manager’s words were one thing, his look another. This had hurt him too.
Zinedine Zidane celebrates after Ronaldo’s second. Photograph: Clive Rose/Getty Images
There is something about Real that Atlético simply cannot overcome; everyone else is one thing, their city rivals another. Under Simeone, Atlético have conceded only 20 goals in Champions League knockout rounds, including finals, but nine of them have been to Real. Three here carried Real towards a third final in four years. They were led by the relentless Cristiano Ronaldo. Five times he scored against Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals; three times he scored against Atlético.
“It came to me to score the goals but the whole team played well. It was the complete performance,” Ronaldo said. His first goal had come after 10 minutes, the last after 86. In between, Atlético did not manage a shot on target for the first time this season.
Real’s past 11 goals in this competition had come in the second half but this time a goal arrived early. Sergio Ramos was given time to cross from right, curling the ball towards Ronaldo, hovering behind Diego Godín. The defender headed out but only as far as Casemiro, who hit the ball straight back. He did not strike it well but it bounced up and Ronaldo, six yards out, headed past Jan Oblak.
The Bernabéu went wild. On the touchline, Simeone was tapping his head. Think, but about what? It would have been difficult not to think about all those other times, three European defeats in three seasons, difficult not to feel pessimism returning, the inevitability of it all, the cruelty. Much of the buildup had focused on psychology. “If the past has to weigh on someone, let it be them,” Real’s Dani Carvajal had said and that appeared to be happening.
Sergio Ramos celebrates at the end of the match. Photograph: Francisco Seco/AP
Atlético looked rattled. Even when they had the ball – and there were periods when they had a significant amount of it – there was a lack of conviction. They passed but rarely with intent or belief; often it was underhit. Koke swapped sides with Yannick Carrasco, seeking control, and while there was an improvement he was unusually imprecise. When he tried to thread it through gaps, the gaps closed. One superb pass that did cut through Real’s back four found Kévin Gameiro racing alone into the area but, as he slowed momentarily, Keylor Navas sprinted towards him and, diving full length, took the ball from his toe.
When Atlético looked up, Real stood in their way or ran right at them. On the wings, especially, Atlético were struggling. Lucas Hernández, drafted in at right-back, was not enjoying the game. Jan Oblak had already made a sharp save from Karim Benzema before Ronaldo’s opening goal. After it, Luka Modric shot wide, Raphael Varane’s header was superbly saved and Benzema hit a wonderful overhead kick just past the bar.
The Atletico players look dejected after the third goal for Real. Photograph: Daniel Ochoa de Olza/AP
Atlético’s first shot did not arrive until the half hour, when Antoine Griezmann’s clever free-kick found Godín sliding in at the far post. Real had taken 10 by then, although as the half progressed Atlético did at least stem the bleeding. They had been unexpectedly passive defensively and while there was little danger when they came forward, the good news was they trailed by only one goal. Real also lost Dani Carvajal at half-time to a hamstring injury. From full-back, he had been Real’s main threat; Marcelo on the other side had also concerned the visitors.
Carvajal was replaced by Nacho Fernández who drew applause when he won a race with Angel Carrasco. Atlético took a step forward, Real a step back. Yet if they appeared to be dropping too deep, they rarely lost control, Toni Kroos adept at managing time and the ball. For their part, Atlético lacked clarity and they knew that counterattack is a weapon Zidane’s side use better than anyone.
If a lot happened in the first half, little was happening now, but the threat never went away. Fernando Torres, Nico Gaitán and Angel Correa had come on for Atlético to no effect, while Real’s substitutes Lucas Vázquez and Marco Asensio sped the game up as it stretched. Their impact would be significant; Ronaldo’s was gigantic. Real controlled, rarely suffered, and then struck. They had been the better side from the start but it was not resolved until the end.
With 73 minutes gone, Marcelo crossed from the left, Benzema held off Godín and nudged it on for Ronaldo. Opening up his body, he smashed a superb shot into the top corner. Atlético sought the goal that would give them a chance; instead, they conceded the goal that means they surely have none. Vázquez broke up the right and pulled the ball back for Ronaldo to side-foot home comfortably. The goal that carried Real closer to Cardiff was his 103rd in the Champions League, more than Atlético have ever scored.