Two perfect goals, which would have been good enough to crown any European champion, but instead serve as the perfect setup for the second leg. That was the overriding sense when Manchester City came from 1-0 down to claim a 1-1 draw at Real Madrid.
It was an absorbing match, elevated by two top-quality goals, but the feeling was that it was just getting going as it ended. Instead, he’s only halfway there, for a game that could well decide almost everything this season, and certainly the competition that means more than anything else.
Real Madrid can perhaps be a little frustrated at not scoring a killer second goal when City seemed to be available. It was uncharacteristic, and left them open to what everyone else in Europe is used to doing, but not as unusual as the game was for Pep Guardiola’s team. This was only the first time since April 1 that they were behind in a game. While it may not have been their best performance at the time, the strength shown could be just as important in finally winning this Champions League that the Abu Dhabi project so desires.
It is the knowledge of such great powers in the game that has ignited this version of Madrid and defined its last half decade, but that is not the case for Carlo Ancelotti. He has his own ways, especially since he also holds the record for the most Champions League that Guardiola wishes.
That weighed in this game.
As is often the case with games in this setting, and especially when the main cast has now reunited so frequently, there are echoes of so many nights before.
Ancelotti had tried this exact approach against Guardiola before. He was on his way to his third Champions League and the tenth for Madrid, which sought to limit the space to a technically superior Bayern Munich but only in its own area. Ancelotti was prepared to give up a lot of ground further, which again left a Guardiola team with so much possession, but only because it also allowed his quick players plenty of room to run.
Madrid won that match 1-0, getting the vital touch when Guardiola’s team had so many passes.
Now, Ancelotti has even faster players, and more. It is one of the most striking elements of this iteration of Madrid. They have so many immensely promising players that they can eat up 80 yards of field in a very short time. It means they can go from defending to devastating in seconds.
Chief among them is Vinicius Jr, who by now has gone from “promising” to perhaps the most effective player in world football, perhaps the best.
The goal was another great example of this, as well as a glorious combination of so many different qualities.
First there was the divine and skilful touch under pressure that was Luka Modric’s pass to Eduardo Camavinga. It was one of those moments where he instantly felt innocuous but actually did a lot in one individual move. Both Modric released the pressure and he released Camavinga. The French international, here as a left-back but potentially one of the best midfielders in the world, simply tore through the field in the way that Madrid sees as his future.
The actual timing was something else. Vinicius let the ball go through him and, with one touch without missing a beat, he almost broke the net with a shot that went to the corner.
His impact was even greater as he had come off City’s best run of the game for some time. That’s how it was for the next goal, except this one was the other way around. Kevin De Bruyne scored a ridiculously good goal in Madrid’s best run. It is also another difference with respect to that match in 2014. If Ancelotti now has faster players, Guardiola has better ones, including the Belgian.
Prior to that, Madrid had sought to replicate their cross-city rivals at Atlético Madrid last season by rocking Jack Grealish. Dani Carvajal surprisingly pushed him against the billboards, before Toni Kroos viciously cut him down in midfield.
Madrid was really taking this approach. He assured that perhaps they understood it more than they expected. They were in complete control in the 20 minutes leading up to De Bruyne’s equalizing goal, and they felt the game was there to kill it. However, unusually for Madrid, they couldn’t handle it. Instead, they felt the impact of what they often do to English teams.
Out of nowhere, De Bruyne produced a shot that had everything behind it.
Perhaps there was more to it than that, as he and Rodri had repeatedly tried to catch Thibaut Courtois from a distance. This proved the logic.
The game immediately became an emotional one, from one end to the other, both sides probably content to take the draw but neither willing to accept it. That meant Federico Valverde destroyed the left side of the city with a delicious spin, with Grealish then equalizing up the middle, and the otherwise silent Erling Haaland running dangerously, only to be blocked hard by Antonio Rudiger and celebrate doing it.
At the time, it seemed like the tie was only going on, and it could have done with half an hour more.
There will be at least 90 minutes for Wednesday, and it could decide the season.