Real Madrid Can’t Be Killed Quite So Easily

This should really be over already. In the first leg of their Champions League semifinal tie, Manchester City thoroughly outplayed Real Madrid, cutting through Madrid’s defense with ease, scoring four goals in the process. It was a performance worthy of a huge, possibly insurmountable margin of victory. Instead, Real Madrid proved once again the one undeniable truth of recent Champions League history: Until they are dead, Real Madrid is never, ever dead.

In this case, Madrid was mostly fortunate to avoid conceding even more goals, and managed to pick up three goals of their own to go back home with a manageable 4–3, one-goal loss. It really should not have been this close. Though the final counting stats don’t really show a lopsided beating—the hosts had 60 percent possession, but only one more shot on target than Real—City was able to get chance after chance after chance from both sides of the field, while Madrid’s defense struggled to even remain in the same zip code.

The game couldn’t have started any better for Manchester City. Just 95 seconds into the game, a gorgeous cross from Riyad Mahrez found a wide-open Kevin De Bruyne in the box for City’s opener.

Real’s defense fell even more asleep on the next City goal about 10 minutes later, as Gabriel Jesus found himself in the box with David Alaba on the wrong side. One smooth turn later, and it was 2–0.

Normally, a 2–0 lead after just 11 minutes of play would be a decisive swing, for the score and for the soaring winning team’s confidence and the deflation of the losing team’s. But Real Madrid doesn’t work like that. Because of their history, Real is immune to nerves, immune to dispiritedness, immune to the idea that a game is ever lost until it’s all the way over. Their ability to take things as they come, and not make anything more out of them than what they actually are—in this case, a big hole but not a killer one, not something even a single goal couldn’t turn around—is part of why they never seem to die when they look pretty dead. Oh and also, they have Karim Benzema. Sure enough, it was the Frenchman who got Madrid back into it by, in the 33rd minute, converting the first real half-chance the team created:

To City’s credit, the Mancs still held control of the match, and Phil Foden’s clean finish from a Fernadinho cross—the Brazilian was playing right back due to a first-half injury to John Stones, already playing there due to further absences; more on this in a second—restored City’s two-goal lead.

Here’s the thing, though: It should have been more. Mahrez had a couple of chances of his own to pour even more misery onto Real’s plate, none better than in the 48th minute, when he broke away from the backline. He could have slotted a cross box pass to Phil Foden for a tap-in, but instead he shot far post. So far post, in fact, that he dinged the ball of the woodwork, and Foden couldn’t quite slot home the rebound:

It was that moment that it appeared like this was going to be another Real game, the kind that its victims over the last decade—mostly Atlético Madrid—have come to know so well. Only two minutes after makeshift right back Fernandinho made that fantastic play for the Foden goal, the Brazilian showed why he’s not a real right back by getting worked by Vinícius, who cooked his countryman and then sprinted half the pitch and scored himself, cutting the margin back to one:

A Bernardo Silva banger in the 74th minute doubled City’s lead once again, but, you guessed it, Benzema scored yet another goal, this one from a penalty off of an Aymeric Laporte handball, and that’s how things ended.

From a neutral perspective, a 4–3 scoreline is first and foremost an indication of an amazingly fun game, and even Pep Guardiola said that it was “one of the best nights of my life.” However, in spite of coming away with the win, City will have to be the most disappointed team. With Real on the ropes and down two goals not once, not twice, but three separate times, the English side could have driven a dagger straight into the heart of its opponents. Instead, Real did what it does so well: It kept its cool, relied on its stars to pick up the slack from its flailing defense, and got just enough lucky bounces to go its way in order to only lose by one.

With the away goal rule out of the picture, City will be happy to not have that particular mountain to climb next week. Still, they’ll head into Madrid’s fortress next week in dire need of another dominant performance and also less Madrid magic. For Real, this is just where they want to be. Heading into Tuesday’s game, I’m sure Carlo Ancelotti and Co. would have gladly taken a one-goal loss, and given how poorly the side played for most of the match, they’re probably even more elated having only lost by one. Now Real can do what it does best: attempt to win a knockout round it has no business winning. And after Tuesday’s bit of sorcery, following two consecutive knockout round ties during which they were similarly out-played but still advanced, who would bet against them doing just that? Right when the corpse looks coldest is when it comes roaring back to life.

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