With 60 people dressed head-to-toe in black carrying an effigy of a sardine for burial, the pre-Lenten Madrid carnival is the most unusual time of year in the Spanish capital. Yet after Real Madrid CF's thrilling 3-2 victory against FC Bayern München, the locals would have been forgiven for thinking the celebrations had come a day early.
Ash Wednesday in Madrid sees the annual Entierro de la Sardina. Members of the aptly named Burial of the Sardine Brotherhood lead a procession through the city holding aloft their giant likeness of a fish before enjoying a vast feast of soon-to-be-forbidden pleasures. It makes for interesting viewing, but the sense of the extraordinary descended a day early at the Santiago Benabéu last night as two sides struggling for goals contrived to serve a feast of them in an absorbing first instalment of their UEFA Champions League last-16 tie.
Giants of European football, Madrid and Bayern have been out of sorts of late, struggling for form as title aspirations slip away. Much of the failings have been down to a lack of creativity. They had mustered just three goals between them in four outings going into their meeting in the Spanish capital and as drizzle started falling on a cold night, there was a sense it could be a long 90 minutes. But once Raúl González had found the net with the opener on ten minutes, the route to goal suddenly became clear - for both teams.
Raúl's strike had come amidst a vibrant start by the home side, apparently keen to give oxygen to their fans' hopes that they will not have to wait long before adding to their nine European Champion Clubs' Cups. 'Nos llama la decima' (They call us the tenth), read an enormous banner unfurled by optimistic Madridistas before kick-off, but their drums and whistles were silenced midway through the first period when Lucio headed Bayern level. It came against the run of play, yet Fabio Capello's side did not bow heads and had restored the lead within five minutes as Raúl applied the faintest of touches from point-blank range to ensure Iván Helguera's header crossed the line.
It was a corner from David Beckham that had created that opening, and the erstwhile England captain was at his mercurial best in the first half, spraying 40-metre cross-field passes with trademark accuracy. Raúl may have been the man with the goals but it was Beckham's name the crowd chanted, and he rewarded them again before half-time when his arcing free-kick evaded everybody but Helguera and he subtly flicked on for Ruud van Nistelrooy to make it 3-1 at the far post. The game looked Madrid's for the taking and they began the second period with similar intensity though a goal proved elusive and Bayern gradually gained a foothold.
The introduction of Claudio Pizarro after the hour proved a minor breakthrough. The Peruvian striker began to find spaces that did not seem to be there before, heading Willy Sagnol's free-kick just wide and then testing the largely anonymous Iker Casillas with a low drive. Belief slowly began to creep into the Bayern ranks and they got their reward two minutes from time when former FC Barcelona midfielder Mark van Bommel kept the tie wide open with a sumptuous half-volley. It left the home support shell-shocked but as anybody who lives in a city that has a festival about a sardine should know, stranger things happen.
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