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The biggest “sliding doors” moments from Real Madrid’s road to the Champions League final

The smallest of details make the biggest differences in the chase for European glory.

Some like to call it “luck”, others “divine intervention” but whatever the characterization, its clear Real Madrid have managed to take advantage when opportunities arise and thus they find themselves in the UEFA Champions League final. In his book, Don’t Trust Your Gut, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz provides data to reveal that luck, or big break opportunities, appear for everyone, every team, or any business at more or less the same rate. The difference? Some take advantage while others never do.

“Here’s the remarkable result from Collins and Hansen: across the companies in a range of fields, there was no statistically significant difference in the number of lucky breaks received by 10X companies and 1X companies. The 10X companies averaged about 7 lucky breaks. The 1X companies averaged about 8 lucky breaks.

Collins and Hansen concluded that successful companies didn’t have more luck; they were better able to capitalize on the luck they got, the luck that any company can expect,Davidowitz explained in Don’t Trust Your Gut.

This is why Luka Modric just laughs when media and rival fan bases say that Real Madrid is “lucky”. Every team is lucky, but Real Madrid capitalize on that luck better than anyone else. And the perfect evidence to that are the “sliding glass” or what-if moments that changed Real Madrid’s fortune from brink of elimination to Champions League finalists:

Thibaut Courtois’ Penalty Save vs Lionel Messi - PSG Round of 16 (1st Leg):

TOPSHOT-FBL-EUR-C1-PSG-REAL MADRID Photo by FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images
FBL-EUR-C1-PSG-REAL MADRID Photo by GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP via Getty Images

Real Madrid’s worst performance in the Champions League this season (yes, worse than the Sheriff loss) was against PSG in Paris. The team defended in the lowest of low blocks and failed to materialize any type of attacking rhythm. The match finished with just one shot on target for the visitors. Carlo Ancelotti apologized afterwards but criticism, justifiably, was through the roof. Madrid would lose the match 1-0, but it could have been far worse had Thibaut Courtois not been in net.

In what will be a new-look PSG for the 2022-2023 season, with Mbappe now the clear leader and pseudo sporting director, the Frenchman (who earned the penalty in the first place) would have likely taken the penalty. Instead, it was Lionel Messi who stood up — a man, despite his innumerable talents, who has always struggled from the penalty spot. And sure enough, in the 62nd minute with 30 minutes still to play afterwards, Courtois denies Messi from 12 yards.

What if Mbappe had taken the penalty he earned? What if PSG scored? Would they go on to score one or two more in the first leg and deny any chance of a comeback at the Bernabeu? This is one of many Thibaut Courtois heroic moments that will go down in Madrid history should the team secure the 14th.

Donnarumma Mistake with the Ball at his Feet - PSG Round of 16 (2nd Leg):

Real Madrid v Paris Saint-Germain: Round Of Sixteen Leg Two - UEFA Champions League Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

The catalyst to Real Madrid’s epic comeback vs PSG and the match that started the fire for each every one of Real Madrid’s historic Bernabeu comebacks, stems from a goalkeeping error. Gianluigi Donnarumma did not do his homework. Karim Benzema will always hound a goalkeeper when there is a chance to hound. Just ask Loris Karius, Sven Ulrich, and later Edouard Mendy.

Had Donnarumma decided just to hoof the ball out of the area, would any of the comebacks happen? Would PSG go on and maintain their superiority like they had in the first 135 minutes of the tie? One mistake from Donnarumma was the domino that set in motion and re-awakened the connection between the Bernabeu faithful and it’s “mentality monster” Real Madrid players.

Tuchel Starts Andreas Christensen at Center Back - Chelsea QF (1st Leg):

FBL-EUR-C1-CHELSEA-REAL MADRID Photo by JAVIER SORIANO/AFP via Getty Images

Ancelotti got his tactics near perfect against Chelsea in the first leg at Stamford Bridge — especially in the opening 45 minutes. Tuchel opted to start Andreas Christensen as the right center back in a back three with wing backs. This led to a massive mismatch with Vinicius Junior’s lethal speed torching the Danish center back time and time again. It was the Brazilian who provided the opening assist to Karim Benzema after putting Christensen on skates for the umpteenth time.

What if Tuchel had made switched Reece James to center back sooner or if he had started the physically imposing Englishmen at that position rather than Christensen? It was an epic duel between those two in the 2nd leg - when James started at center back - and Madrid may not have run riot at Stamford Bridge had Tuchel recognized the mismatch from the start.

Marcos Alonso’s Goal after a Ferland Mendy Mistake gets Ruled out by VAR - Chelsea QF (2nd Leg)

Real Madrid v Chelsea FC Quarter Final Leg Two - UEFA Champions League Photo by Alex Livesey - Danehouse/Getty Images
Real Madrid v Chelsea FC Quarter Final Leg Two - UEFA Champions League Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images

Ferland Mendy was counting his blessings after Marcos Alonso’s goal, Chelsea’s third, was disallowed after an intervention from VAR. The left back had been caught on the ball dribbling out of the back and Chelsea punished the error by immediately transitioning towards Thibaut Courtois’ net. Although Chelsea still went on to score an aggregate equalizer through Timo Werner, Madrid began to wake up and felt the Bernabeu get behind them after Alonso’s goal was disallowed. Had that goal not been disallowed, would Madrid have crumbled further? Would Chelsea have scored 4 within regulation time and overturn the aggregate deficit? The tide turned after VAR intervened.

Dani Carvajal’s Goal Line Clearance at the Etihad- Manchester City SF (1st Leg)

Quality is not perfect but image still stands, Foden misses from just outside the six due to a Dani Carvajal block.

Nacho took a gamble trying to win a header and Mahrez breaks free down the center of the pitch. No Madrid player can close him down in time and the Algerian faces a 1 on 1 with Thibaut Courtois. His shot is on frame, but hits the post and ricochets directly to the feet of Phil Foden. The young Englishmen scrambles to get his footing as the ball comes to him and takes a first time shot that is masterfully blocked by Dani Carvajal. The right back did not have the greatest of matches in Manchester, but his near goal line clearance denied City a third goal early in the second half. City had countless opportunities in this match, but failed to capitalize. Had Foden buried a shot that was 0.55 on the xG chart, then City may have felt the match was too far away from Madrid. Instead, Real Madrid clawed their way back and managed a 4-3 thriller.

Espanyol match gives game-time to reserves who end up being needed in Extra Time - Manchester City (2nd Leg)

TOPSHOT-FBL-EUR-C1-REAL MADRID-MAN CITY Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images

Carlo Ancelotti’s decision not to rotate in the November to early December gauntlet of matches (Sevilla, Athletic, Real Sociedad, Inter, and Atleti) paid dividends not only in points earned, but in the ability to later rest and rotate for the April/May showdowns in the Champions League as the La Liga title was already wrapped up. Ancelotti was criticized for the lack of rotation, myself included amongst those who criticized, but it worked out. Against Espanyol, the La Liga match day prior to the 2nd leg vs Manchester City, Ancelotti had the opportunity to rotate most of his squad. Players like Dani Ceballos, Rodrygo Goes, and Jesus Vallejo had the chance to play.

All three of those aforementioned names ended up featuring in the second leg. Rodrygo Goes was the savior scoring two late goals, Dani Ceballos did not miss a beat in midfield, and Jesus Vallejo had to step in as center back - after not playing all year except for a good game vs Espanyol - and managed two crucial headed clearance and a hard tackle on Phil Foden to deny City any chance moving forward.

What if Ancelotti opted to rotate for that crucial round of games in November/December? What if Madrid lost more points in La Liga? What if they needed to win vs Espanyol to secure the title and thus had to roll out a full strength starting XI. Would Vallejo have played as well?

Ferland Mendy Goal Line Clearance - Manchester City (2nd Leg)

When the game already seemed out of reach, with City leading 1-0 at the Bernabeu in the 87th minute carrying an aggregate score of 5-3 in favor of Pep Guardiola’s men, a pivotal moment took place. Ferland Mendy made an outrageous goal line clearance on Phil Foden’s (yes him again - both first and 2nd leg goal line misses) attempted shot. Unbeknownst to Mendy, that goalline block and clearance would be vital to keeping Madrid’s hopes alive. Rodrygo Goes would score two stoppage time goals to turn the tide of the match. Both teams had lucky breaks (deflections falling to Foden outside the box), but one team capitalized while the other did not (Mendy getting into position to block the shot). Had Foden scored that goal, the tie would have been just about out of reach.

Real Madrid are in the Champions League final because they are ruthless. When luck does come their way — like it does for any team in any competition as has been statically proven — Real Madrid take advantage while others let the opportunity depart. If Real Madrid are to be victorious in Paris on Saturday, they will need to carry the same ruthless streak while taking advantage of the smallest of details.