By Daniel J. McLaughlin
Football can be a cruel sport. Optimism can lead to devastation, and the perfect fairy tale ending will see its wings clipped. Football is cruel, and so is hope. Juventus will tell you that. They had hope, and it was robbed from them at the very last minute. It took an hour for the Italian champions to mount the perfect comeback, but it took just one rash decision in one minute to end it.
The Serie A side had a mountain to climb following their first leg encounter with Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter-final. Los Blancos were ruthless at the Allianz Stadium with a stunning bicycle kick from Cristiano Ronaldo sealing a 3-0 win. The last-eight in Europe's premier competition had already conjured up some unexpected results - Liverpool defeated the seemingly unstoppable Manchester City, and Barcelona were knocked out by Roma who came back from a three-goal deficit.
When Mario Mandžukić struck in the second minute against a sub-par Real Madrid, Juve sensed a bit of Champions League magic in the air. The visitors got off to the perfect start when Sami Khedira found the Croatian forward unmarked. Douglas Costa played in Khedira, and he sent a cross from the right. Mandžukić was in plenty of space at the far post, and he headed in the opener.
Goalkeeper Keylor Navas was kept under pressure by the Juventus attack. Former Real Madrid striker Gonzalo Higuaín scuffed a shot, and the Madrid goalkeeper had to vend off a number of shots as his box was bombarded.
At the other end, Gareth Bale saw his effort saved by veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, and then his rebound shot hit the side netting. Working his way into the Juve box, Cristiano Ronaldo's low shot was parried away by Buffon, but it fell to the feet of Isco who chipped over the goalkeeper into the net. The assistant referee had his flag up, however, for offside.
Mandžukić doubled his tally in the 37th minute. It almost mirrored the opener with a cross from Stephan Lichtsteiner finding the forward at the far post. He was marked this time, but the Croat towered over Dani Carvajal and he headed home once again.
The European champions must have felt like the game certainly wasn't going their way when Raphael Varane met Toni Kroos' free-kick with his head - but it bounced off the crossbar on the stroke of half-time.
When referee Michael Oliver called the first half to an end, Juventus could dare to dream. They needed one more goal to draw level with the Spaniards, and force the reigning champions to extra time. That goal came on the hour mark following an error from Nevas in the Madrid goal. The goalkeeper fumbled a save from a long cross, and Blaise Matuidi was on hand to scramble the ball over the line.
Extra time looked a certainty, but a chaotic end to the game put a halt to the Italian dream and their improbable comeback. With seconds left of normal time, a cross from Kroos found Ronaldo in the box who headed the ball down to Lucas Vázquez. The Spanish winger fell at the slightest of contact from Medhi Benatia. Michael Oliver pointed to the spot, and the Juventus side were incensed. The referee, who had been producing more cards than a magician, showed a straight red to Buffon after he screamed and pointed at Oliver, incandescent with rage at the decision.
Higuaín was replaced by former Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny for the penalty. A nervous-looking Ronaldo stepped up to take the spot-kick in the 97th minute, and hit it straight into the top corner to seal the win for Real Madrid - and devastate Juventus, whose well-fought comeback came to an end.
Real Madrid will find out their next opponents in the Champions League with the semi-final draw today at midday. The European champions will face either Liverpool, Bayern Munich or Roma. The semi-final first legs will take place on Tuesday, April 24 and Wednesday, April 25 - with the return ties played the following week.