On Tuesday evening, Pep Guardiola circled an interesting point about Real Madrid and the Champions League considering Manchester City’s opposing position.
“You know the love they have for the competition,” he said, adding it is “impossible to compete” with their heritage on this stage. At Manchester Airport that morning, a few of his club’s supporters boarding an Iberia flight headed to the Spanish capital bluntly spelt out their contrasting feelings.
“We hate the Champions League,” began the unsurprising declaration given their booing of its anthem for nearly a decade, “but we need it. We’ve got to win it.”
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A two-season ban from the tournament due to “serious breaches” of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations, which City have filed an official appeal against at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, will not improve their connection with Europe’s premier showcase.
There is a sense that Guardiola’s side can never truly dominate on the continent, because the club does not cherish these “magical nights” – as Sergio Ramos put it – as the likes of Real, Barcelona and Bayern Munich have done.
At the Bernabeu on Wednesday night, where their fans thundered out “F*ck Uefa” within the first minute, City undercut that theory as well as the one that suggests their manager overthinks the blockbuster games as they posted their best marker in Europe.
Powered by the majestic Kevin De Bruyne and Guardiola’s cunning tactical plan, which featured the Belgian as a false nine and the impressive Gabriel Jesus on the left-wing with Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero starting on the bench, the defending Premier League champions outplayed Real in an authoritative second-half showing.
Guardiola had studied the Spanish giants during a 10-day period when formulating his plan. “I watched the most amount of matches of Real Madrid and their defensive game was different,” he noted. “We played without a proper striker because of way they defend. They are so aggressive though the middle and when that happens you have make the pitch wide. We wanted to give diagonals as much as possible.”
City’s measured approach threatened to be undone by a hat-trick of errors from Rodri, Nicolas Otamendi and Kyle Walker, which allowed Vinicius Junior to set-up an unmarked Isco to open the scoring on 60 minutes.
The visitors were enjoying their most promising period when Real landed that sucker punch, which enlivened them. City were suddenly stifled and under serious pressure, but Sterling was introduced with 73 on the clock and the shape of the game switched back in their favour.
In an eight-minute spell, Real capitulated. First, De Bruyne conjured a superb cross, which evaded Ramos for Jesus to head in the equaliser. Then Dani Carvajal stupidly slid in on Sterling to give away a penalty that De Bruyne converted and to crown the chaos, Ramos received a red card for shoving Jesus.
City became the first English side to win at the Bernabeu in 11 years and should progress in this tie as they are a superior side.
“The first 15 minutes we struggled a bit, but you have to go through the storm, and then an even first half and I think we started the second half really well and the goal comes at a bad moment for us because I think we were dominating at the time,” De Bruyne said. But I think our response was brilliant.
“It’s a really good start for us. I think in the four years we are here with Pep we had some surprises and even the players, they don’t really know until the game starts what we need to do. We had some lesser moments but in a quality game like this you’re going to struggle sometimes, but I think we fought really well.”
Performances and results like these against European royalty may just enhance City’s affection for the Champions League.
“To win here is a big satisfaction, it’s amazing and we hope it will help us to believe in ourselves,” Guardiola said. “We need to go to any stadium and play the way we did tonight.
“We cannot control what happens off the pitch, only on the pitch. In the last years, we’ve competed really well in the Champions League. These players want to do it for ourselves and our fans. It’s not easy for our club [with the ban], but like I said, I’m so confident everything is going to end well.
“All the team can do is play good and win games. Hopefully the board and the lawyers can convince Uefa we did good things, nice things, not the wrong things.”