Two spectacular and satisfying hits of a ball, from a similar range, on the same side of the same goal. One arrow in the top corner, one in the bottom. There are moments when the scenarios seem designed for the players, when they find themselves in that sweet spot where talent and drive collide, when they have the strength of personality to impose their skills on the most important occasion. But when there are two of them, when they are on opposite sides, Kevin de Bruyne canceled out Vinicius Junior.
Vinicius got the winning goal in the final of last season. The feeling that De Bruyne, like everyone else at City, remains unsatisfied in the Champions League was underscored by the 2021 final, from which he came away with a broken nose and fractured eye socket. That doesn’t mean, however, that his potential hasn’t been realized on European nights. De Bruyne scored for Real Madrid in 2020 and 2022 and 2023; if Manchester City had faced them in 2021, he probably would have found the net then too.
De Bruyne’s goals are rationed these days, saved for big occasions. Since the beginning of April, he has scored against Arsenal, Liverpool and Real. He has assisted against every other team he has faced barring Sam Allardyce’s Leeds, and even that was due more to a conspicuous miss from Erling Haaland than managerial brilliance.
If City’s season ends in Istanbul, they will owe De Bruyne a lot. But if not, he graced a great field with a great goal. Under other circumstances, there would be reason to say that City are slight favourites, even in a tournament stripped of the away goals rule. But not, perhaps, when the adversary is Real.
They lost for 178 minutes in last season’s semi-final against City and progressed. The equation has changed now, with the second leg at the Etihad Stadium this year, but Real are in a position of parity, but arguably a team without equal.
In their different ways, these two teams are incomparable, testing their contrasting approaches to continental superiority. If City can be the best team in Europe, Real is the best to win the European Cup. Perhaps it shows a flaw in Pep Guardiola’s thinking: Real have lifted the Champions League five times since he last did so. But perhaps it only highlights Real’s uniqueness: Everyone else, after all, wants to be the serial winner of this trophy, and right now, no one else is.
Guardiola has his explanations for City’s persistent inability to conquer Europe. He likes to argue that clubs with a tradition of lifting this trophy have an inherent advantage, as if an institutional memory of Alfredo di Stefano prompted Karim Benzema to score or Vinicius Junior became a 21.streetFrancisco Gento from the 19th century in a European setting. An alternative explanation is simply that each is a standout player: Benzema is the current Ballon d’Or winner, Vinicius perhaps the in-form superstar of 2023. Now he has supplanted even the Frenchman as Real Madrid’s main threat.
La Real has a formula of timelessness and explosiveness, with experience in the middle, rhythm on the wings. They struck when Luka Modric released Eduardo Camavinga to fly into space on the left. Vinicius Junior unleashed lightning. If Kyle Walker was included because he could win a race against the Brazilian, even he can’t travel as fast as the end shot cannonball.
However, the context made it more remarkable. Carlo Ancelotti borrowed from Allardyce’s playbook and started defensively against City. Royal leaned back. They absorbed the pressure, but didn’t budge. But Real plays a game of patience better than anyone. Ancelotti, despite a reprimand for dissent, is the most languid of coaches and his team has adopted his personality.
City, meanwhile, went through and through – they had 72 per cent of possession in the first 20 minutes – and then a deft move from Modric made all the difference. After the false war came a bullet from Vinicius. And then Real grew in the game, he went around with the ball more, he showed more ambition. Camavinga began to appear everywhere; Left-backs aren’t supposed to be so ubiquitous but, like Vinicius, the Frenchman is relatively young and seems born for those nights.
And then, just as Real seemed to be tightening the screw, De Bruyne delivered. Haaland was finding stubborn opponents in David Alaba and Antonio Rudiger. A series of duels were battles between compatriots. Vinicius’s shot flew past Ederson. Toni Kroos, the unlikely enforcer, dropped Ilkay Gundogan. Thibaut Courtois made a great save for De Bruyne.
But not for a second. Had City struck with an intricate passing move, it might have looked like Guardiola had brought a Barcelona-esque spirit to the Bernabéu. But it was a moment of individual inspiration. Over the last decade, Real have had more than anyone in this competition. But there was one each in Madrid. Vinicius aimed high, De Bruyne low. Each was a goal worthy of deciding a semifinal, but they can’t win both.