Madrid: A late strike from Mateo Kovacic avoided an embarrassing defeat for Real Madrid, who drew 3-3 with Legia Warsaw in Champions League Group F action on Wednesday night in front of an empty Polish Army Stadium in Warsaw.
Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema gave Los Blancos a 2-0 first half lead in what appeared to be another routine victory, but the Polish side stormed back with three goals before Kovacic’s late score. With the result, Real sit on eight points in the group, two points behind first place Borussia Dortmund with two matches to play.
There was a different look to manager Zinedine Zidane’s starting XI, as Alvaro Morata enjoyed a rare start. However, instead of sacrificing one of his beloved BBC, Zidane retained the renowned attacking trio and slotted them to play with the former Juventus man. Kovacic also got the nod, joining mainstay Toni Kroos as the anchors in midfield, while an illness to Marcelo paved the way for Fabio Coentrao to start at left-back.
It was fascinating to see the four Real attackers work up front and how they inter-changed positions. Most of the time Bale was stationed on the right, would freely drift into the middle or left when necessary. Cristiano Ronaldo and Benzema played more centrally, the latter unafraid to creep out wide left, while Morata did most of his work on the left and sometimes in the middle.
Bale celebrated the contract renewal he signed earlier this week in style, by hammering a stunning volley that earned Real a 1-0 lead even before a minute had elapsed. A long flicked-on header from Ronaldo arrived to Bale at just the right angle, and the Welshman’s strike was a sight to behold for the few people in attendance as it went whistling into the top right corner of the goal.
Two weeks ago in the Bernabeu Legia had shown that they were a plucky bunch, and the Poles played with the same heart on Wednesday. They themselves were a bit unfortunate when Coentrao avoided being called for a penalty in the area. That was followed by some heads-up goalkeeper from Arkadiusz Malarz, who prevented a second Bale goal with a diving save on a header from the former Tottenham man. The rebound fell to Benzema, but inexplicably the Frenchman failed to pull the trigger.
Bale and Benzema would hook up again and this time it yielded a 2-0 advantage for Los Blancos. Kovacic lofted a deep ball into Bale, who dished to his left to an unmarked Benzema and it was an easy seep into net for the goal.
With the second goal Real went to sleep thinking the match was already over, but they were jolted awake by an excellent goal from Vadis Odjidja, who was allowed to waltz into the area by the Real defence and curl a right-footer in past Keylor Navas to make it a 2-1 game.
Real looked to reassert themselves to start the second half, but again slack defending from Zidane’s men would rear its head and it allowed Legia to draw level 2-2. Miroslav Radovic collected a ball and was hardly pressured before unleashing a right-footer to which Navas reacted late and suddenly the match was a toss-up with just over a half-hour to play.
Legia had Real’s full attention after the equaliser, and the intensity of the match ratcheted up several notches. Zidane made his first change soon thereafter, bringing on Lucas Vázquez for Benzema and it was Coentrao making way for Marco Asensio. But it did little to change Real’s fortunes and eight minutes from time, the unthinkable happened: Legia scored to take a 3-2 lead.
Legia had been threatening all night long on the counter-attack and it bore the juiciest fruit the Polish club could have ever tasted as Thibault Moulin polished off a run with a superb finish past Navas to send shockwaves across Europe.
But Real are never down and out until the final whistle is blown, and they responded like champions just two minutes later. Dani Carvajal played a smart back-heel to the waiting Kovacic and the Croatia international rocketed in a shot to make it a 3-3 contest.
Real desperately hunted a late winner and Lucas Vázquez nearly became the hero, but hit the crossbar with an effort moments before the final whistle. Real return to action on Sunday with a noontime date with Leganés in the Bernabeu.