16 Conclusions as Manchester City book their UCL final tickets for Istanbul
Manchester City put Real Madrid to the sword with a 4-0 UCL semi-final win that could have been even worse for the visitors. All hail the new overlords.
1) What was that? The sound of a seal being broken? The end of an era? The start of another? Well, who knows? What does feel undeniable is that Manchester City’s 4-0 win against Real Madrid felt like a shift of not-insignificant proportions. The Kings of European football were left denuded, looking old, tired and broadly out of ideas, while Manchester City continue to swashbuckle their way towards an increasingly plausible-looking treble. Well, when they play the way they did in this match – and presuming you don’t support Manchester United – would you bet against them? (No, not you, Ivan.)
2) Earlier this week, I wrote about Big Club Arrogance, that in-built aura that hangs over football clubs of a certain size, which makes them act in a certain way. Real Madrid have it in spades, but it clearly has limitations and back down on Planet Earth there was plenty of reason to think that something like this could happen to them.
While Manchester City have dropped two points from their last 42 in the Premier League (and swept their way to the FA Cup final at the same time), Real Madrid’s form since the end of October has resembled the trim on an Ajax Bob Marley commemorative shirt. Barcelona have walked away with the Spanish league title, while both their Champions League knockout ties came against Liverpool and Chelsea, two English clubs who have had at best mixed seasons themselves. Remember when people wondered whether Lampardian-era Chelsea could overturn a two-goal deficit in their quarter-final second leg? Fun times.
3) Because if Manchester City did prove anything from this performance, one which may yet come to be considered generation-defining, it’s that you can’t rely on aura alone. Football is many things, and a science is definitely one of them. Manchester City’s component parts were just better tuned, better organised, and by the looks of things, better motivated. Those who may have been considering the possibility of Pep Guardiola overthinking this match overlooked the fact that City’s football this season has become more direct and efficient. The suffocating periods of possession are still all present and correct, but it feels as though there are fewer moving components in his tactical set-up this season. There’s less to overthink.
4) It was pretty much common knowledge that this would be home attack versus away defence after their 1-1 draw in Madrid in the first leg, but it felt from early on that Real Madrid were ceding too much, and that their familiar assuredness was absent when they really needed it the most. Cracks started to show, and their tactic of sitting deep, soaking it up and hitting on the break was of little use because they barely even got a touch of the ball.
This was not the cool, calm and collected performance of a team that were biding their time to spring a trap. Manchester City were smarter, more fluid, and more incisive. Real Madrid took almost 35 minutes to force their first corner of the match. Vinicius Jr was a spectator and Karim Benzema an irrelevance.
5) Thibaut Courtois may be the best goalkeeper in the world at the moment (or at least one of the best), but there are limits to his superpowers. He showed incredible athleticism with the save he made from Erling Haaland’s header after 20 minutes, moving one way but shifting his entire body weight to get back across and push away a header from close range. But he couldn’t hold the fort alone, and already by this point it was feeling increasingly as though he was being asked to do so alone.
Three minutes after that save, the dam broke and it was 24-hour-non-stop goal machine Bernardo Silva who scored it, crashing the ball into the roof of Courtois’ goal as if the biggest match of the season was little more than a training session.
6) Don’t make them angry. You wouldn’t like them when they’re angry. Real Madrid had offered nothing. Absolutely nothing. And then Toni Kroos absolutely leathered the ball against the Manchester City crossbar after 33 minutes via the tip of Ederson’s fingers. Had that gone in, it would have been all square and perhaps the doubts would have started to build again. Perhaps Real Madrid would have remembered who they were and made as much of a game of it as they did last year.
You see, a lot was said about Real Madrid’s run to the Champions League in 2022, the zombie-like way they just kept getting back up and continuing their inexorable march towards Paris, no matter how many times they got shot. But that was last year, and this is this year, and while it is true to say that they came from two down to beat Liverpool in their round of 16 first-leg match, Liverpool couldn’t have been more obliging hosts and Chelsea were, well, you know. They hadn’t been tested this year in the way that they were the year earlier, and it did feel somewhat as though it showed.
But on this occasion, the ball hit the bar, and within four minutes your-one-stop-goal-shop Bernardo Silva had doubled City’s lead. Manchester City were sailing off into the distance, and there didn’t seem to be very much that Real Madrid could do to stop them.
7) Real Madrid improved in the second half, but there was still something lethargic about their performance. They may have found a route back into the game had Ederson not made an excellent save from David Alaba’s free-kick six minutes in. Perhaps this would have made the whites of Manchester City’s eyes more visible. But while Real controlled possession much better than they had in the first – they couldn’t have done much worse – there were still frequent spells when that possession either went around in what looked at first like elaborate shapes but ultimately only turned out to be circles or looking like it should be accompanied by a commentary of “CENTRE HOLDS IT! HOLDS IT!!!”.
That sense of foreboding, that feeling that something was about to happen, was conspicuous by its absence. The two big chances that they created while the game was still in sight – and, as things turned out, all evening – were a snap shot from just outside the penalty area.
8) It was one of those nights for Erling Haaland, whose determination to score coupled with Courtois’ determination to stop him from doing so became one of the sub-plots of the evening. Courtois had already scrambled the ball clear on one occasion prior to his incredible reflex reaction save from Haaland’s header. And with 19 minutes to play a glorious little passage of football ended with another score for the goalkeeper. This time, Ilkay Gundogan completed some give-and-go with Haaland by backheeling the ball through a defender’s leg, but again Courtois made the block. No goals for you this evening, Mr Nordic Goalbot. Just the four for your team-mates, mind.
9) And another theme of the evening, it turned out, was that if Courtois did make an outstanding save from Haaland, the ball would be in the back of his net as a result of somebody else’s actions within a few minutes. This time it was three minutes from the goalkeeper’s save to a Manchester City goal, and this time the last touch came from Eder Militao after Manuel Akanji had flicked on a free-kick from Kevin De Bruyne. And in stoppage-time, Julian Alvarez, who quietly and with the minimum of fuss has come to look like an increasingly canny buy as a back up or alternative attacking option, scampered through to slide the ball past Courtois and complete what would by this time be reasonably considered a ‘rout’.
10) Any lingering feelings that this match was a competitive contest vaporised with the third goal. There is a tendency to think: “What if they score? That’ll change the entire momentum of the tie”, and that theory has a lot to recommend it. But there were problems with it on this occasion, the most obvious of which was that Real Madrid did so little on the night itself to warrant any feeling of foreboding. This sort of ‘what if’ question starts to feel less and less relevant when a game of this nature progresses for so long with the team who are supposed to be doing the chasing looking so impotent.
11) We might be reaching the end of the Champions League line for Luka Modric. Modric’s contract is a rolling 12-month one, but he was an anonymous presence in this game and he’s already 37 years of age. While it has been widely reported that it has already been agreed for him to renew when his current contract expires in June, whether he’ll still be sustaining a first-team place in the latter stages of next season’s competition is surely now very much open to question, especially if Jude Bellingham, a player young enough to be Modric’s son and an obvious successor to him as the motor in the centre of their midfield, arrives this summer. Modric has been an incredible asset to Real Madrid, but time catches up with us all in the end.
12) Pep didn’t overthink this. If anything, Manchester City’s game management was just about perfect. They removed any real feeling of jeopardy from the evening early on, moving the ball with ease around the midfield. Defensively, they were solid, limiting Real to a couple of long-distance shots all evening. And in attack, well, they scored four goals and might have scored more were it not for an excellent performance from Courtois. The final score rather ended up speaking for itself.
13) While Modric’s withdrawal for Antonio Rudiger during the second half felt like it could be the end of an era (though it should be added that this substitution was tactical), there is something of the fin de siecle about these elements of this entire Real Madrid team at the moment. Toni Kroos is 33. Karim Benzema is 35. This, a 4-0 win which would have been worse had it not been for their world-class goalkeeper, will surely be considered an embarrassment by the high standards that the club hold themselves to, but if Manchester City are now the benchmark to which teams have to strive in order to win the Champions League, there can be no room for sentiment when it comes to making the changes that need to be made.
It may well be that Real Madrid are more active in the transfer market during the summer than merely Jude Bellingham alone, though Bellingham could even be forgiven for having second thoughts on the move if he watched this horror show.
14) Human beings are predisposed to see patterns in things, and it’s tempting to see a result like this as being epochal, the fading of one empire in favour of another. Real Madrid have won the Champions League five times in the last nine years, and it should be obvious that they will be back. But with one or two too many ageing players, it doesn’t seem likely that this team will be. For Manchester City, this is the semi-final performance which set straight all those previous failures and eliminations. The psychological effect that it could have on a team that have occasionally tripped themselves up in the past in this very competition could be enormous.
15) Is this a good thing? There might be something fascinating about seeing a club as mighty as Real Madrid being put to the sword in this manner, but how might we feel about that should it just become par for the course, even if we put all the other issues relating to Manchester City, their ownership, their money, and everything else, to one side? Because at the moment it does rather feel as though the gap between this team and every other in Europe is a yawning chasm which is showing no signs whatsoever of getting narrower any time soon.
And while that might be very good for them, it’s a somewhat less healthy state of affairs for the rest of European club football, although the obvious riposte to this is, “Well, if that’s the case, all these other Massive Football Clubs had better improve themselves to be able to compete with them then again, hadn’t they?”
16) Good luck, Inter. You’re going to need it.
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