The look on Pep Guardiola’s face said it all. When Vinicius Junior scored a screamer in the 36th minute, with Real Madrid’s first attempt on goal after over half an hour of City dominance, Guardiola must have been wondering once again if he is cursed in this competition.
True, the Catalan has won world football’s greatest club competition twice, with Barcelona in 2009 and 2011 but that last time was 12 years ago, when Lionel Messi was a mere stripling and City had yet to play in the competition. Indeed in the same month of May 2011, City beat Stoke in the FA Cup final for their first trophy in 35 years, and it was only after signing that summer Sergio Aguero, that they went on to win their first Premier League title and qualify for their inaugural Champions League campaign.
Yet try as he might, with some of the best teams and players in the world, Guardiola has not won it again, either with Bayern Munich and now City. He has reached a record ten semi-finals in all, and another final two years ago, only to be outdone by Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea.
Last season looked like another final was in City’s sights, as they led Real Madrid 5-3 on aggregate with 90 minutes of their semi-final second leg played, only for Rodrygo to score twice in a minute to take the game into extra time, resolved by an inevitable Karim Benzema winner.
Guardiola might have been justified in feeling cursed, but instead the world’s leading manager decided he would be better served by preparing his players to guard against making the same mistakes in this, the first leg of their rematch.
City could not have come into the game in better form, unbeaten since losing 1-0 to Tottenham three months ago, and with 15 victories from their previous 16 games. Guardiola has assembled arguably the strongest City side of the modern age, certainly the best side in England over the past five years, with four Premier League titles in that period and another one in the pipeline.
By contrast Real Madrid’s domestic dominance is not quite what it once was, but their record in the Champions League cannot be questioned. They won it against the odds last season, coming from behind to see off Chelsea and then City, before Carlo Ancelotti outwitted Jurgen Klopp in the final.
Now this competition is their only chance of glory, as they sit third in La Liga, and the way the opening half-hour unfolded, you could see why. City were completely on top, in terms of possession, shots on goal and even artistic impression. Their goal was like a dagger in City hearts, and the men from Manchester might have felt Madrid would prove merciless for them once again.
But maybe Guardiola’s men have learned from last year’s experience, and are made of sterner stuff. They could have capitulated but their fought back tenaciously, sometimes literally as well as figuratively. Tempers frayed before half-time and referee Artur Dias had his work cut out as players from both sides got more physical or went down more easily in search of cheap free kicks and yellow cards.
But then a moment of magic from the coolest of City’s players got them back into the game and back on course for a berth in Istanbul come June 10th. Kevin De Bruyne has been the beating heart of Guardiola’s side in the recent era, and yet does not get the individual plaudits some of his team-mates enjoy. Despite being City’s best player year after year, and arguably the best in the Premier League over a six-year period, De Bruyne has had to watch as Raheem Sterling, Ruben Dias and most likely Erling Haaland win the Footballer of the Year award.
Golden player that he is, his currency is not usually goals. But the one he scored last night, his tenth of the season, may prove more valuable than any of the 51 that Haaland has hit, certainly if City do what they do best – and win at the Etihad next win.
De Bruyne had denied by Thibaut Courtois shortly after half-time but made no mistake in the 67th minute when Ilkay Gundongan laid the ball to him 20 yards from goal, the Belgian thumping his shot past his international team-mate with unerring accuracy.
That was the turning point in this fascinating game of chess between two grand masters, with Ancelotti a six-time winner of this tournament as a coach, four of them with Madrid.
So it is back to Manchester with honours even. King Carlos of Milan and Madrid, via Munich, against Guardiola, the Catalan crown prince who is getting closer to end his long wait. Sources at City say Guardiola considered quitting last summer, but this competition is proving an itch that needs to be scratched. If he wins next week, and then again in Istanbul in June, maybe he will say adios to the Etihad and consider his work in England done. But there is still a more immediate job to be done, and with De Bruyne in his side, who would bet against City now?