One gleeful front page, on a pro-Barcelona Catalan newspaper, advised Real Madrid to ‘now go look for Transnistria on the map’. They will need a detailed map. The shock 2-1 conquerors of Madrid, Sheriff Tiraspol come from a remote corner of eastern Europe, unsure even of which state it belongs to.
Sheriff, whose 2-1 win at the Bernabeu means they have taken maximum points from the first two Champions League group matches of their history, have been Moldovan league winners in 19 of the last 21 years. But a significant part of their support base see them as flying the independent flag of Transnistria, a sliver of land along the Moldova-Ukraine border that claims its own sovereignty although not to a degree that it is recognised as a country by the United Nations.
As of Tuesday, Sheriff can properly claim to represent a very wide constituency: every underdog in club football. Go look at the map of the game’s hierarchy. Real Madrid have won the European Cup a record 13 times, and they come from a Spanish Liga ranked second only to the English Premier League in Uefa’s coefficient table.
The Moldovan league? It comes in at 33rd in the list. It has never before had a club go as far as the Champions League group phase.
Sheriff needed four rounds of pre-qualifying to get there. By the time they had disposed of one former European Cup winner, Red Star Belgrade, and the Croatian club Dinamo Zagreb they had served notice they might be awkward opponents. Their 2-0 group phase win over Shakhtar Donetsk two weeks ago confirmed it.
“We have total faith in what we’ve been doing,” said Frank Castaneda, the Sheriff captain, after “a dream come true” at the Bernabeu. Victory was sealed by a brilliant 88th minute volley from distance by Luxembourg midfielder Sebastian Thill. “The best, most significant moment of my career,” beamed Thill, who was thanked by colleagues for his match-winning strike.
Gratitude was being shared all around the victorious dressing-room, in various different languages, from Russian, which is widely spoken in Transnistria, to Spanish, Portuguese, French and Greek.
“I’m thankful to all my boys,” said Yuriy Vernydub, the club’s Ukrainian head coach, “we played as a team and we deserved this.”
Special praise was directed to Greek goalkeeper, Georgios Athanasiadis, for his 11 saves against a Madrid who catalogued 31 shots, 29 crosses into his penalty area and 13 corners.
He also took a bang to the face from a thunderous drive by Luka Modric, his head in the way on the one occasion his quick hands were not. Nobody in open play could find a way past Athanasiadis, Madrid’s equaliser coming from a Karim Benzema penalty,
Adventurous left back Cristiano also had an outstanding game, and is now the provider of three assists in two group stage victories. His fine cross, on the counter-attack, had set up Jasurbek Yakhshiboev to open the scoring. No footballer named Cristiano has had quite such a stunning impact on a European fixture at the Bernabeu since the one surnamed Ronaldo was making Real Madrid serial Champions League winners.
Coming to terms with this giant-killing will involve some soul-searching by the beaten team. Madrid won their last Champions League title in 2018, Ronaldo’s farewell match before leaving them for Juventus. Although they reached the semi-final last April, their faith in the fortress effect of their home ground and capacity to turn dominant possession into wins has diminished.
Tuesday was supposed to be a celebratory moment for season-ticket holders, the first European game back at the Bernabeu since it was renovated, with most of the last 18 months spent playing at the club’s training ground.
Yet the Bernabeu has not been a blessing in Europe lately. In the last seven Champions League matches there, Madrid have won just once, beaten in that period by CSKA Moscow, Ajax and Manchester City, held to a draw by Bruges.
Being shot down by Sheriff has a greater shock value than all of those and there will be real concern for head coach Carlo Ancelotti about finishing in the top two places of a group that includes Internazionale, who Madrid beat, with some luck, 1-0 on the opening day.
Ancelotti, who bemoaned “a loss we did not deserve”, now faces back-to-back matches against Shakhtar, who defeated Madrid twice in last season’s group phase. Then there’s the trip in late November to Tiraspol, capital of Transnistria and a place now outlined in bold on club football’s map.