Sports

The Demons That Real Madrid and Man City Are Battling in Champions League

Old narratives bedevil both teams ahead of their big semifinal rematch.

De Bruyne heads the ball with his eyes closed with a fist at Modric's chest as Modric looks up at and kicks toward the ball but hits De Bruyne in the head with his foot
Real Madrid’s Croatian midfielder Luka Modrić and Manchester City’s Belgian midfielder Kevin De Bruyne during the UEFA Champions League semifinal first leg match at the Etihad Stadium, in Manchester, on April 26. Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images

Eight days after Manchester City and Real Madrid played what may be the Champions League game of the season, the sequel to their semifinal instant classic is already here, pitting one side’s math against the other’s myth.

On Team Math: Manchester City is already winning, which people like to point out is the most important statistic. The first leg on April 26 finished 4–3 in its favor, and the team brings that one-goal advantage into the return match in Madrid on Wednesday. (Champions League knockout rounds are played home-and-home before the final, with the aggregate score from both legs determining who moves on.) It should be winning by more. The English side scored just 90 seconds into the game on a diving header from star Kevin De Bruyne, who finished what was reportedly his second-ever headed goal for the team he’s spent seven seasons with in the best way possible:

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Manchester City added a second in the 11th minute when Gabriel Jesus took advantage of Madrid defender David Alaba’s failed intervention. It missed out on a clear chance at a third when Riyad Mahrez shot rather than passing after being played through, just before the half-hour mark. Madrid appeared thoroughly overmatched. Manchester City looked as though it might end the series before the whistle blew for half-time.

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Instead, Real Madrid lived up to its own legacy by answering with a swiveling volley from star striker Karim Benzema, and continued to rebut City for the rest of the contest. When the English team scored seven minutes after halftime, the Spanish one got its second two minutes later. Bernardo Silva made it four for Manchester City with approximately 15 minutes remaining; Benzema chipped home a penalty with eight minutes left, drawing a real “Apollo Creed hanging his head when Rocky gets up in the 14th round” reaction from Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.

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Indeed, Madrid’s performance drew a host of “he’s not quite dead” analogies after the game, with everyone from Michael Myers to the Pacific Rim kaiju to Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction invoked as points of comparison for its ability to pick itself back off the mat. All these seem to assume that Manchester City is doomed, no matter what the scoreline says. It had the chance to finish the job and couldn’t do it. If you give Real Madrid a lifeline, history has shown that it is going to cling to it, not just this season but throughout its runs to three consecutive Champions League titles from 2016 through 2018. Its veterans eat one-goal deficits like tapas, sharing them around the table and comparing notes on which were their favorites.

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In 2022, Real Madrid has finished each of its previous two knockout series with fewer expected goals than its opponents. It has yet to hold more possession in any of its five games since the group stage ended. In its previous matchups against PSG and Chelsea, it scored goals to first level and then win the series after the 75th minute of the second leg. (Granted, against Chelsea it had first coughed up the two-goal advantage it brought into the second leg.) Defending and countering against an opponent who is going to hold the ball more is one of the sport’s most common strategies, but as Tuesday showed, Madrid doesn’t really have the defending part down.

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Contrast this to Manchester City, which has been among the very best teams in Europe under Guardiola—it has won three Premier League titles in the past four years, and is currently a point ahead of Liverpool in the race to this year’s finish—but has often disappointed its own high standards in continental competition. Last season it finally made the final only to lose to English rivals Chelsea, but before that it fell to the likes of Lyon in 2020, Tottenham in 2019, and a work-in-progress Liverpool that finished 25 points behind Manchester City in the Premier League in 2018. This continues a pattern for Guardiola from his last gig at Bayern Munich, a team that won the Champions League before and after his tenure but not while he was in charge. It’s been more than a decade since the modern era’s most successful manager lifted its most coveted trophy, back when he was still coaching Lionel Messi at Barcelona. “Winning [the Champions League] would change that little narrative,” De Bruyne admitted in an interview.

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But first the team has to get through Madrid, which remains the sport’s preeminent knockout artist in both senses, built not just to succeed in the high-stakes, high-variance world of elimination tournaments, but also to land devastating blows either from a place of strength or when it appears to be getting overrun. There is no one better at exploiting soccer’s fundamental (but exciting!) unfairness: that because scores are generally so low, results swing on just a handful of plays. Throughout the Champions League knockout stages, Madrid’s highly touted opponents have been trying to soccer their way through to the next rounds. Real Madrid has instead been playing Quidditch, where it doesn’t matter what happens in the run of play so long as it can grab the Automatic Victory Mechanism at the end.

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This season, the person charged with prying open the jaws of defeat over and over again has been Benzema. Overshadowed for the better part of a decade at Real Madrid by Cristiano Ronaldo and occasional glimpses of Gareth Bale, the 34-year-old French striker is now the team’s top scorer and most prolific assister, the best player in La Liga during its first post-Messi season. He’s also been unstoppable in the Champions League. Before netting two against Manchester City, Benzema scored consecutive hat tricks against PSG and Chelsea and then the extra time winner in the second leg against Chelsea. He’s scored 14 Champions League goals this season; the rest of the team have netted 10 total.

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Meanwhile, Madrid’s indomitable old guard midfield of Casemiro, Toni Kroos, and Luka Modrić remain as difficult to take the ball from as during the threepeat. Though the trio’s minutes are down, particularly in La Liga, one look at this four-dimensional Klein bottle of a pass Modrić played that led to the series-tying goal against Chelsea proves they’re still capable of conjuring danger that can boggle the ordinary mind.

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All this gives Madrid something of an elastic baseline for its performances, one that can usually stretch to accommodate its own dips in form. (But not always. Madrid did get Buster Douglas’d at home in the group stages by unheralded Transnistrian club Sheriff Tiraspol in September.) When Manchester City plays poorly, its players look like they’ve realized on Step 30 that they made a mistake on Step 12 of whatever it is they’re assembling. When Liverpool plays poorly—which, granted, has barely happened in 2022—it feels like a party in the aftermath of a noise complaint. But when Madrid plays poorly, it seems to be the setup for any number of cinematic reversals where someone is knocked to the floor and finds a weapon there to bring back to the fight. As long as Modrić can find a passing helix, as long as Benzema is given a coffin’s worth of space inside the box, Madrid has a chance. It is the living embodiment of the Call an Ambulance but Not for Me meme.

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And City might beat it anyway. The narrative here appears doubly stacked against Manchester City—it’s a choker vs. a killer—but those narratives bend like Real Madrid does when presented with a new set of facts. Guardiola of all people knows that Real Madrid is not always invincible at home. The Spanish team will have to beat Manchester City by 1 to send the game to extra time and by 2 to win it before penalties. (UEFA has scrapped its away goal rule this year.) That could prove too much even for Madrid, especially considering that Manchester City looked more than one goal better Tuesday. Its stars can pull those goals out of nowhere, but even they might not be able to conjure enough magic if Madrid’s defense lets Manchester City keep scoring.

Real Madrid will be good enough until it isn’t. Manchester City will bottle it until it doesn’t. No matter what the story says, the scoreline, for now, is tilted in Manchester City’s favor.

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