Photograph: DeFodi Images/Getty Images
If this had to be the last time, at least they were going to enjoy it. The final Champions League group game at the home of the club that has won more of them than anyone else was a farewell to the old format and a homage to Real Madrid’s astonishing taste for the epic, dramatic late comebacks delivered as standard. It was a hugely entertaining one too, Jude Bellingham at the heart of a 4-2 victory against Napoli which was finally secured by an unexpected hero.
Nico Paz, the 19-year-old son of the former Argentina international Pablo Paz, struck a superb shot to put Madrid 3-2 up with five minutes to go and there was still time for Joselu to add a fourth. He turned to the fans, apologised for the chances he had missed before and was instantly absolved. How could it be otherwise? They had had a blast, victory clinching top place and a classic chant going round again: “How could I not love you, if you won the European Cup over and over again?”
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This was fun, and the Pazs weren’t the only footballing family here. There was a Simeone and a Zidane under the lights of the Santiago Bernabéu, just like old times on the grandest of stages but this competition is entering a new era and this was another generation. Gio, Napoli striker and son of Diego Simeone, scored the first of six goals; Théo, son of Zidane Zidane, was on the Madrid bench, where his dad won this competition three times in a row, rather than on the pitch where his dad won one more. But at least he got a front-row seat.
From there he saw Napoli take the lead and Rodrygo, all fast feet, smashing in an equaliser. Khvicha Kvaratskhelia flitting about producing clever flicks. And Brahim Díaz spinning past opponents. He saw Bellingham, the man who was wearing Zidane’s boots and shirt, who the Santiago Bernabéu is increasingly convinced could become the best, and who scored Madrid’s second and made their fourth. He also saw Paz, his old B-side teammate score his first senior goal, sure that it will not be his last.
That was unexpected; Bellingham scoring feels inevitable now. This time, it was a diving header that had him standing before the stands, arms wide. That came in the 22nd minute, and it was already the third of the night. Which, as it turned out, was only halfway through the evening’s entertainment.
Nico Paz marked only his second appearance in the competition by scoring. Photograph: David S Bustamante/Soccrates Images/Getty Images
Napoli had got the first when a glorious Kvaratskhelia inswinging cross reached Giovanni Di Lorenzo at the far post and Napoli’s captain laid it across the six-yard box to Simeone. At first it appeared Andriy Lunin had made an astonishing save, but Simeone – the kid who, against the wishes of his parents, got a Champions League tattoo at 13 – had just about managed to get it over the line before the keeper got there. It took less than 10 seconds after the restart for Madrid to level, Brahim’s superb spin sending him away to find Rodrygo, whose shot hit the top corner.
This was shaping up nicely, the volume turned up when Bellingham produced a neat nutmeg and even more so when he met David Alaba’s wonderful curling delivery with a diving header to make it 2-1 – his 15th goal in 16 Madrid games, including every Champions League match he has played.
A slick one-two between Kvaratskhelia and André-Frank Zambo Anguissa brought a blocked shot and sent Rodrygo on a run from which Brahim pulled wide. A Piotr Zielinski effort then spun just over the bar at the other end. The mood changed when Bellingham went over on his ankle but, while he went down the tunnel limping at the end of the first half, he came back out again at the start of the second. That was the good news; the bad news was that Napoli equalised swiftly, a clever clipped pass from Di Lorenzo leading to Anguissa’s assured finish.
Napoli were getting on top, might have been a man up – Antonio Rüdiger got away with a wild challenge – and momentarily thought they led. Victor Osimhen, a half-time substitute for Simeone, finished cleanly from Matteo Politano’s exceptional service, but he was offside. And this was entering into Madrid time now, the momentum building, not least because Bellingham was driving it from everywhere.
Rüdiger had the chance from the Englishman’s cross only for Alex Meret to make an impressive save. From the rebound, Alaba produced the first of two overhead kicks to fly over in as many minutes. Then Bellingham reached Dani Carvajal’s diagonal and drew another save from Meret. The ball looped up to Joselu, who had missed the second of those overhead kicks and now somehow nodded wide. And then it happened, Paz producing a moment worthy of what had had gone before, turning one way, then the other and beating Meret from outside the area to make it 3-2. That left just enough time for Joselu to join the party, invited there by Bellingham, the best of a brilliant night.