If you want to take the temperature of what some have been known to call the Real Madrid Industrial Complex, you could do worse than listening to Tomas Roncero. You may know him as the Real Madrid editor of ACE – one of Spain’s fiercely pro-Madrid sports dailies – but you are probably more familiar with his work on The beach barthe late-night talk show turned meme factory and social media sensation over the past year.
After the first leg at the Etihad last week, Roncero made his entrance to the studio and walked into its pulpit in an oddly triumphant mood given the 4-3 defeat in a Champions League semi-final. He stood tall in front of the other guests in Madrid’s acid green third shirt and, with ‘The Eye of the Tiger’ cued in to play behind him, proceeded to repeatedly punch himself in the head.
Each time, he would fall dramatically to the floor, feign a mild concussion, slowly pick himself up to his feet, then punch himself in the head again. There were four punches in total, one to represent each of City’s goals, but after the last, he rose to his feet for the final time. I have taken the blows. He was still standing. And watching it, you wondered whether you in fact were the one who had been hit in the head.
This is not Rocky. It’s not the greatest underdog story ever told. It’s Real Madrid Club de Fútbol, the 13-time champions of Europe. It’s ‘the kings of europe‘as the banner unfurled at one end of Santiago Bernabeu read before kick-off, the kings of Europe.
It is, by many measures, the most influential, most successful and most powerful club in the world. But that does not mean they don’t sometimes want to act like the little guy, the ones achieving against the odds, the ones who do things the hard way.
A popular phrase among Madrid supporters and media over the past week has been ‘Yes you can‘ – yes, we can – a phrase full of hopeful optimism. That is quite different from ‘of course we can’, which more accurately describes Madrid’s attitude to just about any task that has confronted them over their 120-year history. Yes, they can? Of course they can. They only had to beat opponents who once accidentally kept the ball in the corner flag to confirm their own relegation.
But that is not Manchester City anymore. Once a club with a modest record of success and a much longer, much larger line in tragicomedy, they have been elevated to this rarefied level by the game’s shifting economics and the greatest manager of his generation.
They regularly play like the best team in the world, the team Madrid are meant to be, and for 90 minutes of this semi-final second leg, Madrid played like they knew they were second-best.
The hint of caution about Carlo Ancelotti’s side was foreshadowed in the line-up. In one way, the return of Casemiro from suspension made perfect sense and plugged a lot of the gaps that City exposed previously. Yet with Rodrygo out and Fede Valverde moving back to the right wing as a more diligent, defensive presence, the complexion of Madrid’s starting XI was far less adventurous than it had been in the first leg.
It produced a dead-even first half. The shot tally was split five apiece. The possession – unusually for City – was only a percentage point in their favour. This was not the sky blue riot that ran amok during the opening half-hour a week ago, but then it did not need to be either. City were ahead and playing like it, not rushing their time in possession, keeping their shape smartly while out of it.
Given Guardiola leaves precisely zero to chance, we can assume this was his plan. It was working.
Madrid’s, by contrast, did not appear entirely clear. There was little of the urgency shown from the start 260 miles away in Villarreal the previous evening. There was barely any pressing of the ball. At one point, Bernardo Silva was given free rein to pick a pass inside the Madrid half without a defender within 10 yards of him. In possession, Ancelotti’s side had one regular route of attack – through Vinicius Jr, up against the returning Kyle Walker – but if anything, did not use that avenue enough.
Walker would eventually be forced off deep into the second half. Even by then, Madrid were not especially flooding City’s half. The few times they did – such as for the Karim Benzema chance before the break and the Vinicius opportunity immediately after it – the offside flag was raised.
Within a minute of Walker’s departure, Mahrez scored the goal that had appeared to confirm our arrival into the land of the upside-down, to a place where City reached back-to-back Champions League finals and the past is a foreign country.
Yet this semi-final was always likely to be a test of how much the present counts for compared to your history.
Until the very last minute of the requisite 90, Madrid looked like they were sprawled out on the canvas. They looked like they would succumb to this scary new world where it does not matter what you did yesterday.
Then Rodrygo snuck in at the far post.
Then he said in the second.
And if as extra time started, you did not see Benzema’s winner coming – by way of a penalty, of course – then more fool you.
City will wonder how they lost this tie over two legs, having been six minutes of stoppage time away from the final Paris. There will be questions about Guardiola’s selection, tactics and approach to him, just as there has been for each of the past six seasons, when he has fallen short of delivering the prize that is desired more than any other in east Manchester.
But perhaps the only explanation for what happened at the Bernabeu, despite the shifting landscape of modern football, is what history tells us: often, in the end, Madrid are still standing.