A convincing win that was anything but convincing
By Rory Smith
First thing Wednesday morning, Pep Guardiola’s staff would have delivered to the Manchester City manager a meticulously annotated report of his team’s Champions League semifinal against Real Madrid. At roughly the same time, Carlo Ancelotti, his counterpart in the Spanish capital, would have received something very similar.
Those dossiers would contain brief snatches of video, each highlighting some key tactical detail. There would be photos, too, offering a snapshot of a scarcely perceptible flaw in a player’s positioning or an expanse of the field left exposed or a darting run left unconsummated. There would be, perhaps, giant arrows in some lurid shade. There would certainly be reams of statistics.
Guardiola and Ancelotti will settle down and comb through them, panning for whatever seam of wisdom they might find, mining deep into the detail in the hope of finding some kernel, some insight that might prove the difference when they play again next week. And as they do it, they will know, deep down, that it is all absolutely, fundamentally, unavoidably pointless.
There is no hidden explanation, buried deep in a screed of numbers or encoded in high resolution pixels, for how host Manchester City managed to beat Real Madrid yet ended the evening feeling like it had lost. Or for how it finished with four goals and the sensation that it should have had half a dozen more, or how it landed a succession of knockout blows only to find its opponent still standing there, smiling, complaining only of the mildest headache.
The raw numbers of the game are not a magic eye puzzle; they are barely even a Rorschach test. No matter how long and hard you stare at them, they will not suddenly become an image, clear and sharp, of something that bears analysis and interpretation.
They will not tell Guardiola how his team could be so obviously, so vastly superior by every available metric and in every conceivable way — slicker in possession and more inventive and creative and youthful and dynamic — and yet wholly incapable of shaking Madrid from its tail.
And they will not enlighten Ancelotti as to how his team, somehow, remains alive and fighting in this semifinal, with a chance over 90 minutes in front of its own fans, baying and roaring, to defy all human logic and make the Champions League final. They will certainly not tell him how Real Madrid manages to keep doing this, over and over again, seeming to draw strength as it comes ever closer to the edge, continually finding the will and the wit to conjure its curious, self-perpetuating magic.
Guardiola himself had acknowledged that before the game, half in jest, suggesting that there was not a vast amount of point in conducting the usual, instinctive analysis of Real Madrid because Ancelotti’s team is, by its very nature, so chimerical. He meant it, most likely, as a reflection on the virtuosity of Karim Benzema and Luka Modric, the ability of some of the finest players of their generation to bend a game to their will, but it sounded just a little like he was saying Real Madrid does not make sense.
He is, of course, too respectful — even of Real Madrid, the club that stood as his archenemy for the first four decades of his career — to say that out loud, but his experience at the Etihad would not have contradicted him.
Real was beaten within 10 minutes: two goals down, ruthlessly exposed, looking suddenly like the expensive collection of gifted but ill-matched individuals that all right-thinking people dismissed them as about four Champions League titles ago. David Alaba, his entire career spent among the elite, appeared to have been replaced by some callow ingénue. Toni Kroos appeared to age several decades with every passing minute.
And then, from nowhere, Ferland Mendy slung in a cross, the sort that comes more in hope than expectation, and Benzema planted his foot and shifted his weight and scored, even though it was not immediately clear whether both the human body and the laws of physics are designed to work like that.
No matter. City was still slicing Madrid apart at will. Riyad Mahrez hit the post. Phil Foden had one cleared off the line. A beat later, Foden converted an artful, clipped cross to restore City’s cushion, to relieve the tension swaddling the Etihad.
The ball had come from the foot of Fernandinho, a creaking central midfielder reborn for the evening — in extenuating circumstances — as a marauding fullback. His rejuvenation lasted two minutes. Guardiola was still celebrating when Vinicius slipped past his makeshift opponent, sprinted half the length of the field, and slipped the ball past Éderson.
City came again, Bernardo Silva dispensing with all nuance and intricacy and simply kicking the ball, as hard as he could, his shot flashing past Thibaut Courtois. Benzema turned away, grinning ruefully, as though he could not quite believe the holes from which he has to retrieve his teammates.
On anyone else, it might have looked like an admission of defeat, a final acquiescence to fate. But it is Real Madrid, and it is Benzema, and it is the Champions League, so obviously what happened was that Aymeric Laporte inadvertently — but inarguably — handled the ball in his own penalty area, and Benzema stood up and chipped a shot, languidly and confidently, straight down the middle of Éderson’s goal.
Guardiola sat on an icebox in the technical area, his fingers steepling against his forehead, in horrified awe, as if trying to impose some reason on it all. It is a thankless task. This game did not make sense. Its outcome, the one that meant Real Madrid left Manchester with something more concrete than hope, with 90 minutes in front of a baying, willing Bernabeu between Ancelotti’s players and another Champions League final, did not make sense.
There is no data point, no vignette, no piece of analysis that will adequately explain how Manchester City could beat Ancelotti’s team so comprehensively and yet leave with the tie poised so delicately. Real Madrid does not make sense, not in the Champions League, and all you can do is allow yourself to be washed away by it.