At highest stakes, Manchester City soars even higher – The New York Times

At highest stakes, Manchester City soars even higher - The New York Times

MANCHESTER, England — Whatever happens from here, whether or not Manchester City’s Champions League campaign ends with medals and parades and the realization of the club’s ultimate, carefully planned dream, it felt like something changed amidst the frenzied tumult of the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday evening.

It is not enough to say that Manchester City have secured a place in the Champions League final for the second time in three years. It’s not just that Pep Guardiola’s team defeated Real Madrid, the reigning champions, 4-0, beating the club that considers this competition its own private party.

It is that City did this with a performance – given the circumstances, given the stakes, given the opponent’s identity and reputation and talent – which is certainly among the best and most dominant this tournament has seen. This was Manchester City sending a message, making a statement, proving a point. And it was also Manchester City that conquered his ghosts.

Oli Scarff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Oli Scarff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Guardiola’s trials in this tournament are well known. He is, by general consensus, the best coach of his generation, and yet he has spent much of the last decade finding inventive ways not to win the Champions League. He has managed to lose to Monaco and Lyon, Liverpool and Tottenham. He lost a final to Chelsea because he played with his team. He lost a semi-final to Real Madrid in the blink of an eye.

It has become a trope that Guardiola, in his urgency, overcomplicates things. There’s a theory – one he himself hints at – that his background, as a Barcelona fan, has given him what in some ways looks like a slightly unhealthy fixation on this tournament.

He’s always dismissed it as nonsense, of course, dismissing the idea that there could be a pattern, attributing the repeated disappointments to nothing more complicated than the vicissitudes of the game. However, that has done little to quell the feeling that the Champions League had become his – and by extension Manchester City’s – Achilles’ heel, the one empire that the club’s abysmal, state-backed wealth and razor-sharp precision couldn’t overcome.

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The many moods of Pep Guardiola of Manchester City.

Perhaps, given the nature of the City project, that would always eventually evaporate. After all, this is a club that has an inevitably mechanized character. For all the richness of his style, the brilliance of his talent, it’s hard not to discern the cold, calculated precision with which it’s built.

It’s a club that feels like it’s been built – to the exact specifications of the best coach in the world, then outfitted with the best of everything money can buy – rather than grown. At some point that would always show. At some point, establishing yourself as the dominant force of the Champions League is less of a sporting challenge and more of an economic formula.

However, that should not obscure the style with which City knocked Real Madrid aside. Guardiola, in the days leading up to the match, had discovered in his players the three ingredients he believed would be necessary to secure a place in the final against Inter Milan in Istanbul on June 10.

There was a sense of “calm,” he said, a lack of panic and fear. There was also ‘tension’, the edge, the alertness needed to perform. And, crucially, there was the “pain” of what happened last year, when City fell victim to that peculiar magic of Real Madrid, and only Real Madrid. For a year, Guardiola said, his team was forced to “swallow the poison of that game”. This was the chance to clear it.

Particularly in the first half of Wednesday, it felt like this could be remembered as the pinnacle of Guardiola’s project in Manchester, the pinnacle of the team he has built, honed, polished and perfected over the past six years.

At half-time, City were 2-0 up thanks to two goals from Bernardo Silva, and would have had every reason to be more than a little disappointed. Erling Haaland had missed two glorious opportunities. Kevin De Bruyne had a shot over the face of the goal.

Real Madrid were pinned for 45 minutes, not only in their own half but also in their own penalty area, apparently powerless to break City’s spell, to escape its stranglehold. The players, many of them veterans of multiple victories in this competition, seemed rushed and frantic, suddenly stripped of their poise and their ability.

Michael Regan/Getty Images

Luka Modric could not estimate the weight of his passes. Toni Kroos kept giving the ball away. Vinícius Júnior, stranded on the left wing, despondently urged his teammates to step forward. Overwhelmed in midfield, Federico Valverde seemed perpetually baffled to discover that there was always another light blue jersey behind him.

Real Madrid’s reputation, of course, is such that even if they are injured, most teams would consider it a threat. At no point, however, have City considered shrinking back into themselves. Guardiola had clearly sensed something: not only the chance to win a game, but also to change the story, to change the emphasis.

Riyad Mahrez came in. Phil Foden filled in. Swirling, gesticulating, creeping along the touchline, Guardiola urged his players forward. Manuel Akanji made three. Julián Álvarez, in the final embers of the game, added a fourth. A victory turned into a triumph and then a defeat.

This wasn’t just City taking revenge on Real Madrid for last year. It was City who exorcised all the demons it had built, all the disappointments it endured, all the times the machine Guardiola built has stalled at exactly the wrong time.

At the final whistle, as the Real Madrid players sank to their knees – bereft of defeat, relieved that the humiliation had ended – the Etihad Stadium was filled with wild, dissonant noise. The club played Gala International. The fans roared, boomed, cheered. The word ‘Istanbul’, rendered in neon pink, was displayed on the giant screens in the corners of the stadium. Guardiola, his energy almost frantic, hopped and jumped and danced with his players.

Paul Ellis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Greatness is now in the grip of Manchester City. This weekend it should claim the Premier League, its third in a row. It has already qualified for the FA Cup final against Manchester United. It, although Guardiola protested against it, will be an overwhelming favorite in the Champions League final. It’s 270 minutes, no more, from winning a treble.

But come what may, come what may, this victory was not just another step on the road. It was a destination in itself, the night Manchester City conquered its ghosts.

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Written by Ft7Ball

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