Real Madrid – Manchester City Epic Semi-Final

The Merengues beat City in a thrilling two legs 6-5 with glorious comeback at the Bernabeu

Rodrygo scores tying goal in Leg 2

To the City players, the fans, and especially to their manager Pep Guardiola, City’s semi-final Champions League matchup against Real Madrid must have felt like a Dickensian nightmare, a tale of two legs, one in which it was won and then ultimately lost. It was the best of games, it was the worst of games. We had the lead, we lost the lead. We had the chance to go to the championship, we lost the chance to compete in the championship.

One of the genius ideas of modern football competition is the concept of two legged competitions. The winner is decided by an aggregate score played over two matches: the home game and the away game. Viewers are treated to two games instead of one and in most cases. the single game miracle (a wondrous event in itself for underdog teams) is eliminated. With two games, the best team usually prevails because luck and bad fortune tend to be minimized and superior talent and coaching prevail. Can you imagine if Russia and Spain had to play two legs in the 2018 World Cup quarter-final ? Is there any doubt that Spain would have won that second leg to advance ? Russia would not have beaten Spain over two legs. Spain would not have suffered a collapse of Dickensian proportions.

So was the case (and an exemplary case and argument for the two-legged series) with the Real Madrid – Manchester City matches played out over 8 days last week. A matchup of two iconic teams; one at the top of the competition (Madrid have won 13 Championship trophies – the most of any club in history), the other trying to become a Champions League winner for the very first time.

Manchester City has been the best team in the English Premier League for 10 years, winning 5 League titles. In the Champions League, however, Manchester City has experienced nothing but heartbreak. Pep Guardiola has arguably assembled the best team in modern football, its possession game unrivaled, but it has been unable to enshrine itself with the title by winning the Champions League. After losing the final last year to EPL rivals Chelsea last year, City made another run this year but finally met their match again against the Merengues, who were not to be denied, once again.  This made it the 7th out of 8 times that City has been eliminated before reaching the championship game [1]. Six of those losses have come at the semi-final stage. Guardiola now holds the ignominious title of having lost the most of any manager at that juncture.

Real Madrid, on the other hand, knows nothing but glory in this competition. From the onset of the European club championships, Madrid has won in bunches (first five from 1950-1955, 1966, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2014, 2016-2018). The teams have spawned nicknames such as the Galacticos of the early 2000’s, the Merengues, and even the Vikings ! The team has been led by some of the greatest players of all time: DiStefano, Puskas, Raul, Guti, Zidane, Ronaldo, and Cristiano Ronaldo, just to name a few.

Real Madrid Greats

The first leg was played in City’s home, Etihad Stadium. It was an instant classic. City was the superior team in the beginning and went up 2-0 inside of 11 minutes: DeBruyne on a valiant header with a leg in his face and de Jesus with a nice turn inside the box after Alava misplayed the entry pass. The Sky Blues had plenty of more chances before the half was over: Mahrez could have made it 3-0 at 25’ but decided to shoot into the side netting with Foden wide open in the middle for a cross. Foden himself pulled one wide 3 minutes later. Benzema drew one back at 33’ with a nice left-footed volley into the corner off of a cross from Mendy. Benzema has been the highest scoring forward in the Champions League with 15 goals.

In the second half, City came out firing on all cylinders. In minute 52. Fernandinho beat Vinicius Jr. to a loose ball and then streaked down the right side putting in a perfect cross to an unmarked Foden, who headed the ball in. The encontre between Brazilian national players would be featured again just two minutes later, and as a bonus, would also feature a third Brazilian in a footballing menage a trois. Receiving a pass down the right wing, in his own half, Vinicius let the ball go through his legs as he pirouetted, leaving Fernandinho in his wake. Vinnie Jr, known mostly for his blazing pace, used his most exquisite skill to beat all other defenders 50 meters into the City box, where a last sublime touch set him up perfectly to beat an onrushing Ederson. City, which had rightly dominated large stretches of this game, was now only up 3-2. Game on, as the British are so fond of saying.

But City wasn’t done trying to stretch the lead, trying to put the game out of Real’s reach. In the 73rd, deBruyne was fouled outside the box, but with the ball falling neatly to Bernardo Silva, the referee let play go on. Silva drilled the ball past a stunned Courtois, who seemed to cheat towards the middle just a bit, with a banger to make it 4-2. It was the third time City had a two goal lead, but they couldn’t keep it. In the 81st minute, LaPorte was flagged for a handball in the box on a cross, his right hand elevating to an unnatural, stretched out position as he jumped. Ever since the inception of VAR, that is now called every single time.

So who else to take this most important PK but Benzema, the leading scorer in Champions League.

Let’s digress here a bit to savor the sheer aesthetic beauty of what occurred next, both on the pitch and in the narrative description of the action. The first tangent I’d like to entertain you with is the wording of the English commentator. I am, in general, very fond of English announcers. They are thoroughly professional in every sense of the word. They are always fully prepared, they do their homework with respect to the teams and the players, injury status, managerial intrigues, place in the table and other competitions. They narrate the action in a thoughtful, clear manner. But what they excel at, what they are the greatest at, in my opinion, is that they capture the essence of the football set piece (PKs, set pieces, corners, etc.) like no other announcers in the world. The prose they wield is so exceptional that it is often described as Shakespearean. Of all the announcers in the British school, Peter Drury is truly one its finest exhibitors, a master at capturing football’s drama. Right before the penalty was taken Drury narrated: ‘Benzema, in the midst of the Blues, in a moment that matters massively … Karin Benzema, immaculately calm, ridiculously calm, deliciously calm. It’s 4-3.’ Elegant, succinct, pure bliss !

Benzema’s fabulous Panenka

The second digression is the decision by players to shoot a penalty kick as initially invented by Czech player Antonin Panenka, who first used it in the UEFA Euro 1976 final to beat Germany and claim the title for Czechoslovakia. Panenka was the last kicker in that shootout. The kick has gained fame because of the simplicity of the execution under immense pressure. It looks easy to do, but it’s only because the greats make it look so. Pele described Panenka as either “a genius or a madman.” The kick has been attempted since but only a handful of times in major cup competitions (Zidane in the 2006 World Cup Final and Alexis Sanchez in 2015 Copa America Final). Leonel Messi, playing for Paris St. Germain, was the only other player to attempt it in a Champions League game against RB Leipzig in 2021.

From a purely statistical perspective, there is a great risk of taking a Panenka. Chances of missing are high. It is much safer to use conventional PK taking techniques. So why did Benzema do it ? I don’t believe that it was due to the fact that he had missed his previous 2 PK’s during league play and thought the Panenka technique was his best bet for success. The reason is more complex and less pragmatic. Was Benzema trying to send a message to City ? Was he playing a high-stakes mind game that if successful would deflate the opponent for the next game ? Benzema sensed the importance, seized the dramatic moment and put his own definitive stamp on it. As my good friend Robert, a very eloquent West Virginian native texted me soon thereafter: “What Benzema did was some pure carpe diem shit y’all.’

It’s all about the psychology of it. As described in various studies cited in Wikipedia: “According to studies, a Panenka has a lower scoring probability over placement or power, though it is alleged that if successful, a Panenka’s psychological impact on the opposite team may be profound, which may be why penalty takers elect to use it.” [2]

I have to believe that Benzema’s decision at this juncture, and his subsequent successful execution, was, in my opinion, the defining moment of the series. Even though it didn’t tie or give Real the lead, it had its intended effect of. It gave Real an opening, a hope that they could overcome a one goal lead as they headed home. But more importantly it put a serious dent into City’s confidence.

City hung-on for a 4-3 victory. It could have been (should have been) 5-3. A one goal lead against a team of this pedigree and tradition felt tenuous at best going into the second leg at the Bernabeu. At the time I didn’t have a good feeling for Pep’s squad. Forget all of the marvelous City players and beautiful team play; the only thing that I could vividly remember, what truly resonated in my head over and over, was that glorious Panenka and Drury’s magnificent description of it.

The second leg didn’t feature the plethora of goals that the first one did, but the action was still top notch nonetheless. Early on, tensions ran high as both LaPorte and Modric earned yellows after a scrum in which it appeared that LaPorte slapped Modric in the face as he was being pushed down to ground. No goals came in the first half but there was plenty of action as both Courtois and Eder made key saves throughout. Courtois was the more active of the two as he had to make 4 saves from shots on frame.

The second half started similarly with both teams with chances. City with shots on frame and Real with close encounters but skying their shots.

When Mahrez smashed the ball to Courtois’ near post in the 73nd minute to put City up 5-3 on aggregate, their fans went crazy. It truly felt that City had done enough, and by their accomplishments would reach their second consecutive final. But something inside of me said that Madrid was not done yet. When I saw that Camavinga was coming on for Modric in the 75th minute, it felt like something was brewing for the Merengues.

The most expensive 15 minute specialist in world football, Jack Grealish, came on in the 78th minute. Courtois made an amazing save on a swerving shot from Cancelo shortly after Grealish won a free kick in the 83rd. Minutes later, Grealish threatened down the left flank, dribbling his way into the area and his shot was just barely cleared off the line by Mendy. In the 87th Grealish threatened in the area again, faking with his right foot and dragging the ball onto his left foot and took a shot that barely grazed the far post. Grealish came close not once but twice. A goal at this stage surely would have put it beyond reach.

Then came either the epic collapse or comeback depending on your perspective (Did Manchester United win or did Bayern collapse in the infamous 1999 championship game when United scored two goals in injury time to win ? You be the judge.) In the 90th minute, Camavinga (my man) passed into Benzema’s left foot in the area. Benzema, usually the goal scorer, turned playmaker by leaping into the air and crossing a ball with his left foot that Rodrygo took on the short-hop and flicked past Ederson to tie the game and bring Real to within one of the aggregate. Only 88 seconds later, in injury time, Rodrygo scored on a header to tie the aggregate score at 5. Drury, at it again, said: “They prayed for miracles and miracles arrived.” Miracle indeed, as Carvajal’s cross met Valverde’s head first and his slight deflection landed at Rodrygo’s doorstep, served on a platter. In injury time, Rodrigo almost won it outright with a close range shot that was saved by Ederson.

Not since United’s Ole Gunner Solskjaer heroics in the afore-mentioned 1999 championship game has a substitute had such an impactful effect on a game. Had he scored, he would have eclipsed Solskjaer’s performance.

Had the away goal rule still been in effect, this game would have ended right there and then (Madrid had 3 away goals versus only 1 for City). But since the rule was rescinded this year, that meant extra time. In the 94th minute Camavinga streaked down the right side and passed to Rodrygo who crossed into the box, where Benzema touched it first before being fouled by Ruben Diaz. The referee signaled for a PK and Benzema very calmly (once again) put his PK away to give Madrid the lead it would not relinquish. Three goals in a span of 5 minutes did City in. There was more football played, but Madrid just had to hang on. Courtois got another fingertip to save to deny Fernandinho at the far post right at the midpoint of extra time. That would be City’s last gasp.

Like Ali against Foreman, Real had absorbed City’s best punches throughout two legs and came back swinging with one final flurry to vanquish their daunted opponent. City just had nothing left at the end.

How did this happen ? My belief is that the Madrid players carry on a proud tradition of the club and they fully know it. Going into any match, they have a mental fortitude built up over years of winning tradition, a kind of club genetic code. Even if many of the players weren’t alive for much of this history, it somehow is ingrained in the mentality of the players. Madrid’s management team is one of the best at assembling great talents and handing the reins over to the greatest managers to herd them towards trophy after trophy. Their current manager, Carlo Ancelotti, is now in his second stint coaching the club and won it all in 2014.

City hasn’t ever won this championship, never tasted that glory. Their players haven’t quite lept high enough to clear that last hurdle. If City keeps going the way they are, they will eventually win it all and start their own tradition. They are simply too good to not win. The first one is the hardest. Many more will come after that.

Drury, the English master, put it best:

“The night of the Real resurrection,” he exclaimed. “The pure white shirts have shimmered spectacularly once again and Real Madrid are Paris bound.

“Real Madrid will play the big game again, the love affair goes on. Improbably, miraculously, impossibly, beyond their dreams, their expectations and Pep does not know where to look. For the 17th time, the club of glitz and legend will go to the final of the European Cup. Blink it back, 6-5.”

The final pits Real Madrid versus Liverpool in a rematch of their 2018 Final that Real won. It should be a great match. It’s a real shame that it won’t be played across two legs.  It would be a much grander affair. I believe Sir Charles Dickens would agree.

PS:

Since their defeat City have been on a tear in the EPL, winning two lopsided game as they attempt to secure the only trophy within reach now, the league championship. More importantly, they announced the signing of Erling Haaland for £51.1m. This could very easily be the last piece the club need to finally bag the Champions League for next year. I’ve said all along that City lacked a true #9. They just got arguably the best young striker in football today.

References:

[1] https://www.uefa.com/uefachampionsleague/history/clubs/52919–man-city/

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Real_Madrid_CF_in_international_football

[3] https://www.dailystar.co.uk/sport/football/peter-drury-city-real-madrid-26878476

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panenka_(penalty_kick)

[5] https://www.cnbc.com/2022/05/10/erling-haaland-man-city-confirm-deal-to-sign-borussia-dortmund-striker.html