March 26, 2023

Manchester City were the more coherent team but the white noise and white light of the Bernabéu was decisive in semi-final

When the moment came it seemed to strike Daniele Orsato like a surge of static energy. The referee had been phlegmatic at the Bernabéu. He shrugged. He jogged. But this place does something to you. As Karim Benzema fell, ankle tapped by a lunge from Rúben Dias, even before his body hit the turf Orsato’s arm was springing out from his side, ramrod straight, possessed with the voodoo of another of these absurd electrical storms, these nights of white noise, white light, where nothing is ever done until it’s done.

Benzema stepped up and rolled the penalty kick into the empty corner of the net, ran to the crowd and began slapping hands, reaching out, like a demented papal walkabout. And so it came to pass. With 89 minutes and 40 seconds of this semi-final second leg gone, Real Madrid had been on their way out of the Champions League in sickly fashion, pushed to the edge of things by a City team that had been more efficient, more coherent.

With 95 minutes gone they were 3-1 up on the night and the Bernabéu was floating up off its moorings, writhing, singing to itself, high on that regal will to power.

What to make of all this? There has been a great deal of mythmaking around the Bernabéu on this run. This is a magical place. A terrifying place. An enchanted canyon. A place where witches skirl about in the skies above casting dark magic.

And there was the usual white noise and white light at kick-off, those craning ends creating a kind of noise funnel effect, dissolving into a barrage of whistles as the name Josep Guardiola appeared on one of the screens. They hate Pep here. He represents, well, all of it. Catalanism, Messi‑ism, clásico‑hate, other people succeeding.

After which, Madrid just seemed to sit in and wait for their moment, trying to reduce the game to something smaller, a moment that could be snatched. They trod water. They watched City pass the ball. It took four minutes for Kevin De Bruyne to put his first sequence in motion, turning away from Casemiro, and producing a wonderful cinematic through pass for Gabriel Jesus. After which City kept turning on the cold tap, making those packed, fretful stands watch as they passed the ball in their neat little triangles and hexagons, asserting their own careful rhythms.

Madrid had one tactic in those opening 25 minutes. Give it to Vini. Watch him go. Around the 40‑minute mark they counterattacked, feeding the ball to the left‑hand corner again like an upmarket Jack Charlton team. Vinícius Júnior was away – and then he wasn’t. Kyle Walker’s sprint back was full-thrust. The tackle was perfectly timed. It felt like maybe this was the thing that was going to happen. Maybe this is the story now? Except, somehow you knew it wasn’t. Half‑time brought whistles, arms thrown in the air, and a shrug of frustration around the stands.

City had looked like a version of City that wasn’t quite City. But Madrid’s midfield had still been outgunned and outrun. Does it matter? Aged 36 now, Luka Modric just kind of hangs in there, waiting for the day to come his way. Toni Kroos spent most of the game looking gassed and pink and sweaty, like a dad on a fun run. But Kroos is also part of the myth, the show of being able to put out a midfield with a player this languid and regal. Yeah, this is us. And this is how we will beat you. With 17 minutes to play Riyad Mahrez scored a wonderful goal that seemed to kill the tie, spanking the ball into the comer of the net after a fine run and pass from Bernardo Silva. City were two goals up now. Was this it? Was this thing done?

Carlo Ancelotti appeared on his touchline, shrugging and shuffling, and resembling as ever, a renaissance archduke about to ride off into battle wearing evening dress and smoking a cheroot. Rodrygo came on. That end point began to creep closer. And steadily City began to congeal.

There have been times in this competition when this team has seemed brittle. As though playing football is a formal exercise, something learned and studied and reproduced. There is a team of beautiful movement, precision, passion in there. But sometimes it helps in these games to play through a mist, to play red not blue, hot not cold, as they did in the first leg. They had chances to kill this tie, most notably Jack Grealish twice at the death.

The strangest part was, there was no buildup. This wasn’t coming. The earth did not shake. The air didn’t crackle. There was no sound of footsteps approaching through the forest. Instead of winding up through the gears at the Bernabéu, Real Madrid did something else, scoring twice in 84 seconds right at the death, both from Rodrygo.

Then came that penalty kick, and a final half‑hour that felt, somehow, like a victory lap, an assertion of will. It is six seasons now since Guardiola first took City into this competition. Every exit hurts. Here as he walked out, bandy legged, all in black, to shake hands and face those tumbling stands, the shrill wave of noise, it was impossible not to feel the pathos of the moment. City were simply overwhelmed here, the masters of control beaten by another moment of energy, light, magic, whatever.

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