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Manchester City beat Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-finals


MANCHESTER, England — As early as Wednesday morning, Pep Guardiola’s staff will hand the Manchester City manager a meticulously annotated report from his side’s Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid. Around the same time, Carlo Ancelotti, his counterpart in the Spanish capital, will receive something very similar.

These folders will contain brief snippets of video, each highlighting certain key tactical details. There will also be photos, offering a snapshot of a barely perceptible flaw in a player’s positioning or an expanse of ground left exposed or an unconsumed dart run. There may be giant arrows in a sinister hue. There will definitely be tons of stats.

Guardiola and Ancelotti will sit down and sift through them, looking for any vein of wisdom they can find, digging into the details in hopes of finding a kernel, an idea that could prove the difference when they play again next week. And by doing so, they will know, deep down, that all of this is absolutely, fundamentally, inevitably unnecessary.

There is no hidden explanation, buried deep in a screed of numbers or encoded in high-resolution pixels, for how Manchester City managed to beat Real Madrid while ending the night feeling like they had lost. Or for how he finished with four goals and felt like he should have had half a dozen more, or how he landed a succession of knockouts only to find his opponent still standing, smiling, complaining only the slightest headache.

The game’s raw numbers aren’t a magic puzzle; they are barely a Rorschach test. No matter how long and intensely you stare at them, they will not suddenly become a crisp, clear picture of something worth analyzing and interpreting.

They won’t tell Guardiola how his side could be so obviously, so vastly superior by every available metric and in every way imaginable – more adept in possession and more inventive and creative and young and dynamic – and yet utterly incapable of shaking Madrid. of its tail.

And they won’t shed light on Ancelotti on how his team somehow stays alive and fights in this semi-final, with a chance of over 90 minutes in front of his own fans, barking and roaring, to defy all human logic and make the Champions League final. . They certainly won’t tell him how Real Madrid manage to keep doing it, over and over again, seeming to draw strength as they edge closer and closer to the edge, continually finding the will and the wits to stave off their curious, self-perpetuating magic.

Guardiola himself had acknowledged this before the game, half joking, suggesting that there was little point in carrying out the usual instinctive analysis of Real Madrid because Ancelotti’s side are, by its very nature, so chimerical. He meant it, most likely, as a reflection on the virtuosity of Karim Benzema and Luka Modric, the ability of some of the best players of their generation to bend a game to their will, but it was a bit like what he was saying Real Madrid does not make sense.

He is, of course, too respectful – even of Real Madrid, the club that was his nemesis for the first four decades of his career – to say it out loud, but his experience at the Etihad would not have contradicted that. .

Real were beaten in 10 minutes: two goals less, ruthlessly exposed, suddenly looking like the expensive collection of gifted but mismatched individuals that all right-thinking people dismissed as some four Champions League titles ago . David Alaba, who has spent his entire career among the elite, seems to have been replaced by a naïve ingenue. Toni Kroos seemed to age decades with every passing minute.

And then, out of nowhere, Ferland Mendy threw a cross, the kind that comes more in hope than expectation, and Benzema planted his foot and shifted his weight and scored, even though he didn’t. Wasn’t immediately clear if the human body and the laws of physics are designed to work like this.

Never mind. City were still carving up Madrid as they pleased. Riyad Mahrez hit the post. Phil Foden had one cleared from the line. A beat later, Foden converted a clever, cut cross to restore City’s cushion, to relieve the tension swaddling the Etihad.

The ball had come from the foot of Fernandinho, a squeaky central midfielder reborn for the evening – in extenuating circumstances – from a marauding back. His rejuvenation lasted two minutes. Guardiola was still celebrating when Vinicius passed his makeshift opponent, sprinted half the length of the pitch and slid the ball past Ederson.

City came back, Bernardo Silva shrugged off all nuance and complexity and just kicked the ball in, as hard as he could, his shot going past Thibaut Courtois. Benzema turned away, smiling sadly, as if he couldn’t quite believe the holes he had to get his teammates through.

For anyone else, it might have looked like an admission of defeat, a final acquiescence to fate. But it’s Real Madrid, and it’s Benzema, and it’s the Champions League, so obviously what happened was that Aymeric Laporte inadvertently – but unmistakably – handled the ball in his own penalty area, and Benzema stood up and fired a shot, languidly and confidently, directly into the center of Ederson’s goal.

Guardiola sat on a cooler in the technical area, his fingers pressing against his forehead, in horrified awe, as if trying to impose a reason for it all. It is a thankless task. This game made no sense. Its outcome, one that meant Real Madrid left Manchester with something more concrete than hope, with 90 minutes ahead of a barking, willing Bernabeu between Ancelotti’s players and another Champions League final, made no sense.

There is no data point, no vignette, no piece of analysis that will adequately explain how Manchester City could beat Ancelotti’s side so comprehensively and yet come away with the tie poised so delicately. Real Madrid is meaningless, not in the Champions League, and all you can do is get carried away by it.

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