Man City and Real Madrid serve up a CL classic topped off by a pair of thunderb*stards
Manchester City v Real Madrid lived up to the hype with a couple of ludicrous goals in a 1-1 Bernabeu draw never less than enthralling and which sets up the second leg rather wonderfully.
Good that, wasn’t it?
That was no surprise, of course. Manchester City are currently Europe’s standout football team and it’s long been the case that the Champions League does things – good things – to Real Madrid to render any concerns or failings evident in their domestic work moot.
Such is Real Madrid’s aura on these Champions League nights that it’s all too easy to convince yourself things are all going to some preordained plan even when they conspicuously are not. City gave their hosts an absolute chasing for the first 20 minutes here and if Madrid’s plan all along was to sit in and wait for their moment they surely can’t ever have really planned for it to look quite like this. Certainly the vast majority within the stadium weren’t happy with the apparently passive approach the home side were adopting as City made their patterns all over the Bernabeu.
Then Madrid scored. Obviously. This is what they do. It was a lovely, lovely goal. It began with the deftness of Luka Modric 25 yards from his own goal and ended with the startling violence of Vinicius Jr 25 yards from Manchester City’s. In between Modric’s press-evading flick and Vinicius’ outrageous finish was the galloping panic-inducing surge of Eduardo Camavinga.
Suddenly an untroubled City defence – John Stones had spent most of the opening 20 minutes casually sauntering around in midfield – was backpedalling and in trouble but they still had safety in numbers and Camavinga had little by way of options.
What he did have was Vinicius, who accepted the pass and unleashed something really quite extraordinary. “Unstoppable” is an overused word in football, but you wouldn’t really have wanted to test the physics of that one. Despite the distance from goal and the fact it was nowhere near the corner, Ederson was never in any danger of having his fingers ripped clean off his hands by it.
It’s the sort of goal that on slow-motion replays looks like it might have been bad goalkeeping, but at full speed the sheer ferocity of it meant no blame could be attached to the keeper.
Yet the most startling thing about Vinicius’ goal was, ultimately, that it was only the second sweetest strike of the evening.
Kevin De Bruyne’s equaliser – richly deserved by City on the balance of play in a pulsating clash whose sequel in eight days’ time is already inked in as an absolute must-watch – was even better, struck from similar distance and defying gravity as it hit the back of Thibaut Courtois’ net no more than two feet off the ground yet somehow still rising.
Here, then, were two goals of the highest quality from two players of the highest quality in a match of the highest quality. City’s seemingly nonchalant early dominance was obviously punctured by the Vinicius counter-punch and the 10 minutes after that were the only moments of the evening in which things threatened to get away from them on a hot and sticky night. For the briefest spell, City appeared rattled. It’s been a rare sight in recent games, but by half-time they had regained their composure if never again the absoluteness of their early control.
Madrid’s midfield began, slowly but surely, to establish a greater foothold in what was always likely to be a key match-up in a contest full of them.
Kyle Walker just about came out with honours even from his battle with Vinicius, whose goal came from a central position not long after he’d popped up briefly on the right in what has to go down as a win for City’s right-back.
Antonio Rudiger definitely won on points in a bruising encounter with Erling Haaland, a performance of consummate quality but also the necessary physicality required if there is to be any hope of causing a malfunction in the Goalbot 2000. Rudiger’s performance here was reminiscent of Cristian Romero’s similarly effective effort against Haaland when Spurs beat City 1-0 what seems like a lifetime ago but was in fact somehow, in this ludicrous time-bending season, barely three months ago.
Rudiger did even better than Romero, though, because he didn’t even need to get sent off to make his point. Stopping Haaland scoring is one thing – and a very, very difficult thing – but cutting him out of the game almost entirely is quite another. Even with back to goal he was able to offer little here; how round two of that particular battle goes next week at the Etihad already feels pivotal.
Pep Guardiola, whose reputation for doing a madness having spent far too long thinking about things on these occasions is legendary, went entirely the other way here. Having named an entirely predictable starting XI he then unpredictably left those 11 players on the field for the entirety of a hot, sticky, tiring night. It was a choice justified by the end result, but there were definitely moments in the second half when a change seemed prudent. Both Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva were something close to liabilities in possession by the end of a game where City dominated the ball.
It’ll certainly be interesting to see how many of this XI start against Everton at the weekend, but after a game like this it seems weirdly prosaic to even be worrying about a game where the only things at stake are such trifles as Premier League titles and relegation.
We’re already counting down the minutes to next Wednesday.
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