How Real Madrid’s ‘lucky’ night exposed the truth about Man City

The man sometimes described as football’s greatest manager considered a result that could lead to Carlo Ancelotti winning a fifth Champions League, while his own tally will remain a mere three. “In other sports, we would have won with those statistics,” said Pep Guardiola. Manchester City had 32 shots to Real Madrid’s eight. Real scored four penalties to City’s three. Barcelona’s most successful coach quoted his mentor. “Johan Cruyff said luck doesn’t exist and I agree with him.”

There is, though, a case that fortune did not favour City: eliminated on penalties after 210 minutes of drama, they could reflect upon Real’s two deflected goals in the Bernabeu, the illness that made Kevin De Bruyne a late withdrawal in the Spanish capital, the moment when Erling Haaland hit the bar in Manchester, when the Belgian blazed over as he seemed set to cap a tour de force with a decider. There was Bernardo Silva’s misguided decision to try and chip Andriy Lunin from 12 yards; “it happens,” said a forgiving Guardiola. They were fine margins and this could have been another season of continental superiority. Indeed Ruben Dias, scarcely the most outspoken of footballers, said City “dominated the whole game” against Real.

Few can normally make that claim. It wasn’t, though, domination in the way it had been when Carlo Ancelotti’s side lost 4-0 at the Etihad Stadium last season. And if it is unfair to judge every game by that standard, or to compare it with the 2023 quarter-final demolition of Bayern Munich, those were the standards City set. They have no such statement performance against the best this season. Nor will they now.

Manchester City are not the force they were 12 months ago (EPA)

A curiosity of a campaign could end with a double, with City out of Europe without losing anything other than a shootout. They won 80 per cent of their matches in this year’s Champions League. The alternative perspective is that they didn’t win one against elite opposition either: in all competitions, the three best sides they have faced this season are Real, Liverpool and Arsenal and, in seven games against them, they have not won one. The harsh interpretation is that they had a soft landing in this season’s Champions League and, albeit narrowly, failed the first major test.

It was in part because City, looking frail on transitions, conceded to counter-attacks in both legs. They could force Real into a rearguard action at the Etihad – “they defended so deep with incredible solidarity,” said Guardiola – but a lack of incision felt telling. City scored three times in spectacular style in the Bernabeu, but Guardiola’s formula, when it works, is not reliant on wonder goals. The 3-3 in Madrid aside, they have been less potent in the bigger games, less devastating with their passing. Haaland’s return against Real in a City shirt now stands at no goals in four games. No City player has more than one goal against Real, Liverpool and Arsenal this season: those joint top scorers include two defenders, John Stones and Josko Gvardiol, and a man who has since scored 20 goals for Chelsea, Cole Palmer.

Which is another illustration of the damage done last summer. The departed Ilkay Gundogan casts an ever bigger shadow over his old club while Riyad Mahrez looks more irreplaceable because the internal successor, Palmer, was sold, which looks like an increasingly big mistake. In fairness, Jeremy Doku was a terrific substitute against Real, darting at defenders, setting up De Bruyne’s goal, offering a wildcard. Yet City seemed to have too little else in reserve: Julian Alvarez is a willing runner but, despite all his medals, lacking a little in class. In each leg, Guardiola rearranged his 11 starters at half-time, showing both his ingenuity but a shortage of alternatives.

Of his newcomers, Mateo Kovacic came off the bench to miss a penalty. Matheus Nunes remained on it. Despite Josko Gvardiol’s growing prowess, the eventual verdict may be that last summer was something of a wasted window. City are weaker than last year. There have been hints all season, ignored by those who cast their domination as perennial and inevitable, camouflaged by long unbeaten runs. They have fewer match-winners, and less strength in depth. And if Real lacked high-class attacking reinforcements as well, they are coming in the summer, with Endrick arriving, and Kylian Mbappe surely joining him. Once again, they will surely be deemed the gold standard.

Real Madrid have had more success in Europe than any other team (AFP via Getty Images)

City might have knocked them out in a week when the title race may have swung decisively their way. Even in elimination, City made a mark in history. Deem this a draw and they are unbeaten in 28 games; they equalled a century-old club record of 42 without losing at home.

Yet it felt the least consoling of statistics. The more pertinent number came amid a sense of normality: Guardiola has now had eight Champions League campaigns with City and won one. This was a fourth quarter-final exit. Penalties, like away goals, like contentious decisions and late comebacks, added to a familiar sense of anguish. Only in this sport, perhaps. “That’s the way football happens,” said a philosophical Guardiola. Football has been kind to him at times, and cruel at others.


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