The finest match of the season so far should not change Real Madrid and Manchester City’s approach in the Champions League semi-final second leg next week.
It is rare in football and in life that you get something so eventful that does not end in heartbreak and disappointment. Usually for every frantic high you are awarded with in your existence, it is followed-up by a reality check, or at least a sweaty hangover.
However on Tuesday night, two brilliant teams, perhaps the two best in the world right now, demonstrated just what they can do when they trust the desire to locate the goal and batter it, and neither of them need to come away with anything but a determination to prove themselves all over again next week.
For much of the week, there had been speculation as to how Pep Guardiola would tinker to pull off a surprise. Would he put Gabriel Jesus as a right-back? Would Riyad Mahrez come in as a false nine? Would Raheem Sterling play in boots made of ice? Could a packet of salt ‘n’ vinegar Squares function as an inverted winger?
Instead, Guardiola trusted the work he has done over the past few seasons at the Etihad, the instructions on the training ground and the hundreds of millions spent on amassing the squad he wanted while funded by petrodollars.
City have given him carte blanche to act as he sees fit, and the club have been rewarded with Premier League titles, domestic trinkets, and no Champions League trophy yet. But on Tuesday – for one leg of the tie at least – they have the advantage when it comes to the second leg.
Play like this again, and City will be confident that they have enough to secure their way through to the final in Paris. Phil Foden’s youthful excellence and Kevin De Bruyne’s genius is enough to beat almost anyone. Real Madrid, however, will not be undimmed.
That’s because they have Karim Benzema. The French veteran has grown into his role at Real Madrid one season after the other. He was clearly talented, but with the passing years he has become technically more adept, more consistent in front of goal and with his teammates, and a scorer of vital goals. His brace could be decisive. Without him the club would probably not be on course for a La Liga title, and tonight specifically they almost certainly would not have a chance of progressing through to the final.
Trailing by a single goal, when they have home advantage in the second leg, Carlo Ancelotti’s men might know that if the same City turn up, they will be in trouble. But they will also be aware that the chances of that are slim, while they know with Benzema and the increasingly important Vinicius Jr., alongside players such as Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, they are far from out of the competition.
When Manchester United lost by the same margin to Real Madrid in the 2002/3 season, it convinced Alex Ferguson to start to break up his last team. Gone was the attacking verve and in came a more structured approach to the game. Cristiano Ronaldo replaced David Beckham, and the team started to adopt 4-5-1 more regularly than 4-4-2. In a couple of years, Roy Keane would be gone, two deep-lying midfielders would sit in front of Edwin van der Sar, Nemanja Matic and Rio Ferdinand. They went from imperial to impregnable.
With Ancelotti now 62, there is little chance that he will change his ways. His approach has always been to synthesise the best eleven he can when he rocks up, and endeavour to keep everyone in a decent mood. No tactics, just vibes. With the right setup, it is undeniably effective, particularly with players as outstanding as Benzema.
Guardiola, though, might see things differently if he does not come out of the two-legged ties victorious. A notorious overthinker when it comes to big matches, a defeat could send him back to the 4D drawing board. Guardiola has built one great team, but if he is to revolutionise football for a second time, perhaps he could be derailed into thinking that his side needs more control and less ambition. Retaining the ball with less purpose might appeal if he loses on a slim margin to a dangerous side. That would be an error. For neutrals, players and fans on both sides, they have witnessed one of the finest and least miserable experiences since the pandemic. Walking away from the approach City employed last night would be to walk away from fun. Guardiola’s City and Real’s Ancelotti should be praised for giving people something to celebrate.