Real Madrid comeback dashes Sporting’s upset bid

Alate Cristiano Ronaldo free kick and a last-second Alvaro Morata goal helped Real Madrid earn a comeback 2-1 win in their 2016-17 Champions League opener against a very impressive Sporting Lisbon side on Wednesday night at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu.

When it looked as if Sporting would emerge with the upset victory to begin Group F, Ronaldo perfectly executed a free kick from right outside the area in the 89th minute before Morata headed home in the final seconds of the match to give Los Blancos the unlikely win.

The affair marked the return of the vaunted BBC, as Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Ronaldo lined up together in attack for the first time since last May’s victorious Champions League final. Otherwise, outside of Kiko Casilla continuing in goal in place of the injured Keylor Navas, it was a full-strength starting XI for the hosts.

The match had a nice flow at the start and Sporting Lisbon showed they were going to be no pushover. The Portuguese visitors had a number of deep runs into the Real area and forced Casilla into a pair of tricky saves. In the back, a watertight back line of four was set up to try to limit Real’s playmakers, while five Sporting players would flood the midfield when needed.

Sporting coach Jorge Jesus, ever the tactician, looked to closely mark Real midfielders Toni Kroos and Luka Modric in order to close down the passing lanes to the BBC. Kroos could all but hear the breathing of William Carvalho from behind, while Modric’s every step was shadowed by Bruno Cesar. It forced Casemiro into a more ball-playing role which did not suit Zidane’s squad, so Ronaldo and Bale dropped back more than usual, while full-backs Marcelo and Dani Carvajal tried to give the game more width with late runs down the flanks.

The closest Real would actually come to scoring in the first half was a Ronaldo free kick from the left that curled just over Rui Patricio’s crossbar and out of play. Otherwise, despite Real’s dominance in possession, Sporting had to have felt encouraged by their performance in what was an even and scoreless first half.

Sporting continued their bright display into the second half and deservedly took the lead minutes after the re-start when Bryan Ruíz poked a ball forward for Bruno Cesar, who fired in a left-footer to beat Casilla give the guests a shock 1-0 lead.

The urgency grew within Real following the Sporting goal, yet the good looks at goal remained few and far between. Even though midfielders Carvalho and Adrien Silva were both on a yellow, there was simply no way forward for Real, and their passing suffered as a result. Too often hopeful balls were played in, but there was always a Sporting shirt there to intercept.

Seeking a spark, Zidane turned to his bench, swapping Bale for midfielder Lucas Vázquez for Benzema for forward Álvaro Morata. From then on, it was a starkly different Real. It gave Los Blancos a better balance and they created far more danger in midfield. Morata’s predatory instincts and movement created a new headache for the Sporting back line, which had fared better against a recently recuperated Benzema, and the former Juventus man was unlucky not to score on a deep cross.

The French manager’s last roll of the dice was came in the final quarter-hour, as James replaced the ineffective Kroos to add more of an attacking impetus. Ronaldo could not believe his luck late on when a ball bounced to his feet at the back post, only for him to smack a shot off the post and out.

Yet fate was on Ronaldo’s side, and just minutes from time he perfectly executed a free kick, banging the shot off the post and in, to hand what looked like a draw to the home side. It was nevertheless a bittersweet moment for Ronaldo since it was a goal against his boyhood club, and the Portuguese superstar paid proper respect by not celebrating the score.

The Ronaldo goal sparked the Bernabéu to life, and suddenly Sporting were trying desperately to hang on for the point. A result for Jesus’ side was not meant to be. When the Bernabéu roars for a goal to happen, it usually gets what it wants, and a last-second James cross from the left was met by the forehead of Morata who thumped in past the helpless Patricio for the 2-1 final.

Real will return to action on Sunday in La Liga with a visit to Espanyol.

– Fact sheet:

2 – Real Madrid: Casilla; Carvajal, Varane, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo; Casemiro, Kroos (James, min. 77), Modric; Bale (Lucas Vazquez, min. 67), Cristiano Ronaldo, Benzema (Morata, min. 67).

1 – Sporting:Rui Patricio; Joao Pereira, Coates, Ruben Semedo, Zeegelaar; Martins (Markoivc, min. 70), William Carvalho, Adrien Silva (Elias, min73), Bruno Cesar; Bryan Ruiz (Campbell, min. 90), Bas Dost.

Goals: 0-1, min. 47: Bruno César. 1-1, min. 89: Cristiano Ronaldo. 2-1, min. 93: Morata.

Referee: Paolo Tagliavento (Italy).

Yellow cards: Adrien Silva (min. 38), William Carvalho (min. 56), Zeegelaar (min. 65), Kroos (min. 74).

Santiago Bernabeu (Madrid): 77.000.

Originally Published on Marca

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