City fail to deliver cutting edge as Madrid’s will to power shines through | Barney Ronay

Estimated read time 5 min read

Pep Guardiola had talked about the need to suffer before this game. OK then. It’s a deal. This was a gripping, gruelling, sky blue migraine of a football match, one that Manchester City really didn’t deserve to lose, but which somehow always felt like it was slipping from their grasp even during a second half when City seemed to be very slowly, carefully, methodically pulling the legs off this Real Madrid team.

There will be no double-treble now after Madrid’s victory on penalties. But City still played like champions of Europe for long periods. They took Madrid into a horrible place. These are not footballers accustomed chasing and covering, waiting for the blow to fall. At times it felt as though Real spent the last hour of this game desperately trying to take it to a replay back at their tiny ground with a corrugated roof.

Even the shoot out was a strange affair. Bernardo Silva produced a dismal effort. Mateo Kovacic hit the goalkeeper. Ederson scored. Antonio Rüdiger slotted the winner and celebrated with a power-slide across the Etihad turf.

At which point it was hard not to wonder exactly how City had managed to lose. No doubt there will be blame to be parcelled out, even if it feels a little unfair at the end of a game that could just as easily have fallen City’s way. But then, this was also the kind of occasion Erling Haaland, for example, was bought to make a difference in.

Haaland’s game in numbers doesn’t look great: five shots, one on target; five passes in 90 minutes. But he actually played pretty well by his own recent standards. He looped a header on to the bar. He bullied Nacho a little, using his physicality as a pressing weapon, something he hasn’t always done.

But the fact remains Haaland still hasn’t scored a goal for City in any of these key spring games in the last two years. He came off on 90 minutes with one goal from open play in his last nine games for club and country. Haaland is all edge, bolt-on edge, a footballer who exists to give edge. And edge is the one thing City lacked here.

This was by no means this purely his doing. Jack Grealish ran a lot, and also stopped and jinked inside a lot. He has one Premier League assist this season. Phil Foden has carried the midfield goal threat but was on the periphery here. Kevin De Bruyne did his best to make the difference and it was fascinating watching him apply his shoulder to the wheel of this game, running up and down the scales, the music still there, just perhaps not quite with the same easy precision these days, his contribution an act of will as much as inspiration.

Real Madrid’s Andriy Lunin saves a penalty taken by Manchester City’s Bernardo SilvaView image in fullscreen

Was there something to be made of John Stones’s absence? Probably not. There had been a vague sense of big Pep knockout energy before before kick-off with the news Guardiola had left Stones out of the starting XI. Was this the return of the dreaded overthinking? Not really. Manuel Akanji was a straight swap. We are in any case post-overthinking these days. If anything we’re into underthinking, four big centre-halves and a target man.

It was Madrid who settled quicker, taking the lead with a goal that owed a lot to Jude Bellingham’s beautiful touch in the centre circle, pulling the ball out of the sky with a cushioned half-volley trap and funnelling the ball to Vinícius Júnior on the right. He measured the perfect snaking cross for Rodrygo, who battered the ball at Ederson, then slid the rebound into the corner.

And Madrid were good in the opening half hour. Carlo Ancelotti strolled his touchline, all in black, white shirt, three quarter length wool overcoat, looking like a billionaire undertaker. The deep blue shirts sat deep, unfazed by City’s stretching of the pitch, ready to play in small packs when they took the ball.

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The weather changed at the break. City came out like a train, pressing high. Suddenly the Real goalkeeper Andriy Lunin was flapping in the classic “European” style so beloved of 1980s TV commentators.

Still City were just very slightly off. Final passes were overhit. Nobody quite found their moment. Guardiola’s first substitution was key. Jérémy Doku came on with 72 minutes gone. Four minutes later he was just too quick in the tiniest of spaces, tippy-toes battering the turf, making space to cross low and hard. De Bruyne took Rüdiger’s clearance and finished beautifully, shifting the angle of his foot to clip the ball high into the roof of the net.

By that point Madrid had played themselves into a very deep defensive hole. It was gripping, gruelling, agonising stuff, football as staccato attrition. Chances came and went. City had 33 shots, only eight of them on target. There is no real narrative in their defeat, beyond a familiar sense of Real Madrid’s own will to power; and of course, that missing edge.


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