Real Madrid’s Champions League hoodoo was broken, finally, by borderline perfection.
It was banished to the past, into lore, by the one team capable of banishing it and by the club who’d previously been victimized by it. Manchester City, after years of inexplicable failure, finally toppled the kings of Europe on Wednesday and moved to within 90 minutes of a maiden continental title.
City stormed past Madrid in a semifinal second leg that ended 4-0 — and even that undersold the Cityzens’ dominance. They have — for years under Pep Guardiola — come closer than anybody to mastering modern soccer, and Wednesday at the Etihad Stadium, they came closer than ever before. With their clockwork movement, technical precision and fire, they spun Real Madrid in circles and tugged them left to right until the king’s grip on its trophy loosened. Gradually, over 90 blinding minutes, Madrid conceded to greatness.
City’s breakthrough came after 22 minutes of incessant pressure, courtesy of Kevin de Bruyne and Bernardo Silva.
The confirmation — confirmation that this City team was simply too good to repel — came 14 minutes later, courtesy of Silva again.
Real Madrid later put a third into its own net, as if to succumb to brilliance, as if to admit that Manchester City at its peak is irresistible and unstoppable — because it is, and Wednesday, it was.
City was already widely regarded as the world’s best team, a meticulously refined machine that hasn’t lost since Feb. 5. But in years past, in the Champions League, that “world’s best team” moniker meant nothing. Guardiola’s City had fallen in the quarters and collapsed in the semis and come up short in the 2021 final despite consistent excellence. They entered this week en route to a fifth Premier League title in six seasons, but a European cup was what had infinitely eluded them, so a European cup was what they desperately wanted.
And of course, standing in its way was the club who’d won it 14 times, twice as often as its most worthy peer, and the team who’d scored in the 90th, 91st and 95th minutes to stun City at this very same stage a year ago. Real Madrid had developed an addiction to dramatic Champions League revivals and to ruthless winning. It carried a craving for more of the same to Manchester.
But City, fully aware of the hoodoo, took its mastery of the sport to another level. It pinged the ball to and fro, and swarmed Real Madrid whenever possession was lost. Through 15 minutes, the hosts had produced several glorious chances; six of Madrid’s 10 outfield players, meanwhile, had not even had the opportunity to attempt a pass. As a team, the reigning champs had touched the ball only three times in City’s half. Their heat map looked as if it had been mistakenly pulled from pregame warm-ups.
Only Thibaut Courtois, the long-tentacled keeper who’d saved Madrid in last year’s final, kept the score at 0-0. He sprawled and stretched to stop two Erling Haaland headers, both from inside the 6-yard box.
But the 10 men in front of him were overwhelmed, discombobulated, overrun by the shapeshifting City machine. Its runs were crisp and its pace frenetic and its coordination flawless.
John Stones, nominally a center back, frequently stepped into midfield to boss the game alongside Rodri — and, with a surge upfield, helped make the opening goal. He pulled Toni Kroos deep into the right corner, then recycled possession. Kroos’ aging legs couldn’t recover in time to close the gap that De Bruyne exploited.
Madrid tried to recover thereafter. In fleeting moments of possession, it sent left back Eduardo Camavinga into midfield to get on the ball in an attempt to forge some attacking structure and regain some control.
But that ploy backfired. City’s front-foot defense was too ferocious. In the 36th minute, a few seconds after playing a pass into Camavinga’s feet, Madrid lost the ball and left the 20-year-old Frenchman stuck in no-man’s land.
He briefly stayed on the right to halt City’s advances. Then, as he trotted back to the left, City attacked before Madrid’s actual midfield could regain its shape. Jack Grealish waltzed into the penalty area, then slipped a pass to Ilkay Gundogan, whose blocked shot rebounded to Silva, who scored again.
The second half was calm and less eventful — just as City preferred it. The third goal was fluky but deserved. The fourth, tucked away by Julian Alvarez, felt like a culmination of Guardiola’s seven years in Manchester.
It is, of course, not quite a culmination because this was not the final. Inter Milan awaits June 10 in Istanbul. City’s European drought will live on for at least another few weeks.
But a treble — FA Cup, Premier League, Champions League — now feels more likely than a stumble at the final hurdle. City, from March through May, has become a near-flawless team. Off the field, according to a bevy of EPL allegations, it is a repulsive, slimy club, but on the field, it is threatening to solve this unsolvable sport.
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