“We ask Manchester City’s fans to stay seated at the end of the match,” the Bernabéu PA pleaded as the minutes ticked down. Ha! Fat chance.
Into the belly of the beast. And indeed, fuck Uefa too, as City’s fans insisted throughout the match from their perch in the gods. This was a glorious night for the insurgents from the east side of Manchester, as Pep Guardiola’s team went a long way towards effecting their own summary eviction from the Champions League.
City may have been levered out of this competition for the next two years. They may have fallen behind against the run of play with an hour gone. Imagine the perfect response. Then double it, adding in a Sergio Ramos red card right in front of the away fans, combined with the classic slow, sad, smouldering walk off.
By the end a 2-1 victory was a spectacular vindication of the qualities of this team, and a performance that by the end had the feel of an act of vengeance, a sacking of the temple of European football’s grand old white-robed aristos.
It was in many ways the perfect stage. When City talk about a cartel, or refer to the old European powers, they’re talking about places such as this. The Bernabéu was a stirring spectacle at kickoff, a single wave of noise barrelling round its steeply tiered stands.
Welcome to the home of the royal meringues: the club that cast the European Cup in its own image, that sold its training ground into public ownership to fund its modern dynasty; that defines more than any other football’s self-fuelling insider‑capitalism. Welcome, purple-shirted stagehands, to our stage. And you are?
Even the styling of the occasion had suggested City defiance. The players had travelled to Madrid dressed in a kind of stonewashed denim suit, riffing perhaps on the semiotics of blue‑collar defiance, and looking either way like a troupe of unusually handsome soft‑rock roadies.
As the Champions League “anthem” soared the away fans could be seen turning their backs, giving a range of expressive hand gestures and generally offering their own non-cryptic take on Uefa’s enforcement of its rules.
Knockout ties have been tricky for Guardiola down the years. There has been a tendency to blink, a conviction manager who suddenly loses faith on these defining nights. Here he left Sergio Agüero out and went with Gabriel Jesus. The warrior, the rock Fernandinho gave way to the source of flailing defensive alarm that is Nicolás Otamendi. Raheem Sterling started on the bench. Hardly a wild gamble, given the strength of the starting 11.
And City had seemed unusually focused coming into this game. All teams define themselves against something. City have a chance now to define themselves against everyone, against The Man, against existential adversity. The damned City. The unforgiven. The outlaw blues. It is a powerful brew.
For the opening quarter of this game City pressed high, strangling Real, who got nowhere and did nothing. Kevin De Bruyne gave a glimpse of his passing range. Casemiro was crowded out by Rodri and Ilkay Gündogan.
This was City as an object of resistance rather than a source of light. And with 20 minutes gone it was the away fans who could be heard from their distant upper tier, drawing whistles around the ground.
The first clear chance of the game arrived as Jesus made a wonderful run through the inside-left channel. City were becoming more fluent, although there were still elements of oddity in their tightly stitched 4-4-2.
For a while De Bruyne played as a centre‑forward, the No 9 reimagined as roving Belgian passing genius. Zinedine Zidane, it is said, does the bare minimum of prep on his opponents. He won’t have had this one up on the whiteboard.
Then more adversity: Aymeric Laporte came limping off, replaced by Fernandinho, but City didn’t break stride. Real were strangled in the centre and blunt on the left where Vinícius Júnior demonstrated all the razor-like incision of a startled elk. At which point, true to their own sense of destiny, Real took the lead, Isco shooting low into the net.
Then came a moment that changed everything. De Bruyne jinked and turned and flighted a lovely cross to the back post. Jesus had been the best attacker on the pitch all night. He headed the ball back in a gentle arc past Thibaut Courtois.
City’s fans erupted, then reached a new pitch as Dani Carvajal hacked down Sterling close to goal, reward for a spell of sustained and imperious second‑half pressure. De Bruyne, who completely outshone that regal white-shirted midfield, slotted the kick in to make it 2-1.
City played with a controlled kind of fury. Defiance, adversity, the bonding effects of inequity, real or imagined: these are powerful forces in sport.
This wasn’t justice, or a point proved in the wider battle over regulation and rule breaking but it was an agreeable reminder, for all the surrounding noise, of what a brilliant City team they are. Risky, high-wire, edgy, soft in the middle at times, but sublime when they pass and move and find those overlapping rhythms.
City had 16 shots in the Bernabéu and passed the ball at times with a chastening, almost playful sense of control. One thing is certain: they won’t be going quietly.