So Pep Guardiola has to eat shit again. I’ll pause if that sentence makes you giggle (I know I am). Once again, armed with probably the most stacked team in Europe — as he was in Munich, and as he has been in Manchester — and armed with the most cohesive team in Europe, and probably the best team in Europe, Manchester City and Pep will not be hoisting the European Cup. Pep is 0-for-9 since he left Barcelona, both with Bayern and City. Usually, his failures have come as a result of some cock-up he himself produced, either through lineup choices or tactics. And he may get a fair amount of crap for sending out his charges yesterday in a more cautious and controlled fashion in the Bernabéu, when City created chances at will against Madrid in the home leg and could’ve, perhaps should’ve, been up by four or five at halftime in the tie.
But to be fair to Pep, how do you plan for this witch’s brew/wizard’s spell/devil magic? How do you attack something with logic and planning where logic and planning simply don’t apply?
And again, to be fair to Pep, it worked! The first leg was the type of chaos in which Real Madrid thrive. Madrid don’t have a great team. It’s a debate how “good” they even are. What they have is three or four brilliant individuals, and the kind of space they were afforded in the raucous and formless first leg is the exact kind of thing that individual brilliance can flourish in. Out of the ether anything can come. Pep sought to take that platform away. He wanted to bottle the mist up, cap it, and keep it in a closet.
Which City did. Madrid didn’t have a shot on target for 89 minutes. Karim Benzema had three touches in the box before second half injury time. Vinícius Jr. was pretty well shackled by a returning Kyle Walker, one of the few defenders in the world who can match him for pace. Luka Modric’s biggest contribution was outracing Kevin de Bruyne over 40 yards to a clearance toward his own net in the first half. That’s it.
When you know how Pep works, you know he has no time for chaos and inexplicable forces. Everything can be solved. Everything has an answer. You can always exert more control. Having another match where things were open-ended and unpredictable was never in the cards. Too much would be up to chance. A silly red card here, a deflected shot there, too much could happen. And for 90 minutes, literally 90 minutes, Pep had it under his thumb. They even picked off Madrid on the counter late in the game to take a commanding two-goal aggregate lead. Or what should have been commanding.
But of course, you can’t really command magic, be it from the light or the dark, or from the hands of a genial Italian.
One suspected something was up when Walker had to go off midway through the second half, the third right back Vinícius Jr. had broken over two legs. João Cancelo is a lot of things, but he’s not as fast as Walker. Vinícius would be loose. The workings of the devil always start slow and subtle.
And sure, the left side of City’s defense let a Daniel Carvahal cross come in too easily in the 91st minute, which Benzema tapped back across goal for Rodrygo. And sure, Ederson was too slow to react off his line. But they still needed another goal, and it was still injury time.
As we know now, you can never take the lid off. Madrid’s tying goal, you can’t explain it. Watch it closely:
Carvahal’s cross is first met by Marco Asensio, and it glances off his forehead. There is no way that Asensio was hoping to pass it on to Rodrygo. And there’s no way that Rodrygo was calibrating his header to calculate for the slight deflection of Asensio. And yet the ball hits Asensio at the perfect angle, to hit Rodrygo at the perfect angle, to float over Ederson. You can’t plan for any of that. A fraction of a fraction of an inch difference in angle or spot, a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a second difference in timing, and the ball sprays anywhere but toward the net. There are professional billiards players weeping at this combination of events, wondering how it could be so. You can say it’s blind luck, and maybe it is, but after everything you’ve seen from Madrid this spring? There is something ineffable at work here, because as Spock said, “If you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
Even after this collapse or miracle, depending on your view, there was still plenty of time. Madrid had five forwards on the field. For 30 minutes, City should have run riot through a midfield that Madrid basically left deserted. There was no structure to it. But once Madrid drag you into the chaos, drag you through the Phantom Tollbooth, there is no going back. There was only one outcome. It’s likely that Rúben Dias wasn’t even in control of his limbs when he brought down Benzema in the box in extra-time. He was merely a puppet, pulled to where the spirits wanted him to be.
There is no explanation. Madrid have been the worse team in every tie in the knockout rounds of the Champions League. Both PSG and Chelsea battered them for three halves of four. City did it for even longer. And yet their ability to transform into a devilish fog always allows them to escape whatever confines they find themselves. You can’t handcuff air.
Liverpool beware. Jürgen Klopp is more comfortable in chaos than Pep, but no one has mastered and unmastered quite like this Real Madrid.