It was at around 70 minutes, shortly after Toni Kroos had followed Luka Modric off the pitch, that the edges of the night began to sharpen a little and this Champions League semi-final took on a perfect clarity. Manchester City were going to win and Real Madrid were going to lose and no tweak or tactic, no switch or substitution, was going to change that fact.
Real seemed to realise it too. Perhaps they were only 2-0 down but they were also bruised and broken, scarred and scared, tired of running into dead ends filled with blue shirts. Vinícius Junior had long since stopped trying to beat Kyle Walker and had instead resorted to dribbling past as many players as possible, like kids do in the playground. The fouls became more deliberate and more desperate. Even the Spanish radio commentators at the back of the press box had given up shouting and exhorting in favour of low, funereal voices and the odd illegible hand gesture.
On the biggest stage, in their favourite competition, the most dominant club in Champions League history had been placed under intolerable levels of stress, and simply detonated.
It finished four-nil, and perhaps that flattered Madrid a little. Ultimately only the flailing fingertips of Thibaut Courtois prevented this from becoming a total humiliation, the sort of scoreline that eventually earns a game its own Wikipedia page. It was probably City’s greatest performance under Pep Guardiola, a kind of footballing perfection, a museum piece, not merely a lesson but a scolding, sport as scorched earth strategy. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains.
What does remain? Certainly very little of this great Madrid side. Everyone knew this was a team in need of a transitional phase, a shift from the old to the new. Nobody expected it to happen in a single night. Modric – horrible performance – went off on 63 minutes. Kroos – not much better – departed a little later. Karim Benzema looked old. Will any of them ever play a game of this magnitude again? Maybe, but not together. At the point when Madrid most needed mobility and energy, they were left trying to press and disrupt the world’s best passing side with myth and aura alone.
For once the numbers told much of the story. At the time City scored their first goal they had completed 196 passes to Madrid’s 30. It took 14 minutes for Rodrygo to have his first touch of the game. During the first half City had 196 touches in the final third; Madrid had 10. This wasn’t just dominance. There was a sadistic scorn to it too, the way City took their set-pieces as quickly as possible, the way Pep Guardiola threw a strop at every backward pass. City didn’t just beat Madrid, they barely acknowledged them.
With the greatest of respect to Matteo Darmian and Edin Dzeko, it feels safe to assume that City will finally slake their Champions League thirst against Internazionale in Istanbul next month. They are so clearly the best team in the world at this point that it already feels a little passé, a little obvious, to say so. Nor should we imagine that City have only just started playing at this level. The last team to beat them over 180 minutes in this competition was Tottenham. On a long enough x-axis, City were always going to cross the winning post at some point.
And so one of the world’s richest states spends years trying to hire the world’s greatest coach, succeeds, and then gives him literally everything he needs. Every other club in the world, with the exception of Paris Saint-Germain, has to operate within the constraints of finance or fortune. Every other club in the world has flaws or problem areas that they can’t address right now, but hope to at some point in the future. Guardiola, by contrast, gets the staff he wants, the players he wants when he wants them, gets their replacements ahead of schedule.
So you don’t just sign Erling Haaland, you sign Julián Álvarez to give him a rest. Kalvin Phillips arrives for £45m, doesn’t play all season, and it’s fine. You decide – and just reflect on the breathtaking audacity of this for a second – that you need an upgrade on Phil Foden, and so up pops Jack Grealish. If someone accuses you of breaking the rules, you hire the world’s greatest lawyers to shoot them down. This is perfection, but not so much the perfection of great art as the perfection of a finely-executed military campaign, the perfection of unlimited wealth, the perfection of political strength, the perfection of a pointless mile-high crystal pyramid in the middle of the desert. No academy players and no Mancunians started for City last night. Does this matter? Does anything matter?
Nobody should begrudge City fans their joy at this point. This has been their journey and their success as much as anyone else’s, and with a little perspective they may even realise that they are not as hated as they sometimes assume. Rather, the overwhelming sensation here for the neutral is indifference, a shrug at the inexorable inevitability of hard power. Everybody in this sport is tainted a little, and even on this unlevel playing field City fans have earned their moment of consummate triumph. By the same token, nobody else is obliged to feel anything about it whatsoever.