MADRID — On Tuesday, Pep Guardiola hailed Real Madrid as “the kings” of the Champions League, and though the dethroning has not yet been confirmed, Manchester City landed a significant blow at the Santiago Bernabeu.
They came from behind to win their round-of-16 first leg 2-1 and head to the Etihad Stadium in two weeks’ time as favourites to progress at the expense of the 13-time winners. It is nights such as this when City fans will concede that they quite like the Champions League after all. This was their first win over Real Madrid and their most significant Champions League result.
It seemed unlikely when Isco gave the hosts a 60th-minute lead. But the wheels came off during a frantic final half-hour, and after Gabriel Jesus equalised, Kevin De Bruyne scored a second from the spot. Real Madrid ended the game with 10 men after Sergio Ramos was sent off for bringing down Jesus as the Brazilian looked set to score a third.
It is not over, and City — who survived the early loss of Aymeric Laporte to injury — know all too well about Champions League disasters, but their night in the Spanish capital could not have gone much better.
“I’m happy for the victory and the performance as well,” Guardiola said. “It’s not over. There’s one team in the world who can overcome everything, and it’s this club, but for our people, hopefully we can make a good performance and go through.”
Guardiola is often accused of overthinking big games, and when his team was announced little more than an hour before kickoff, there were shocks everywhere. No Fernandinho, no David Silva, no Raheem Sterling and no Sergio Aguero. All left on the bench.
The travelling City fans high above the goal cheered each starter when his name was read, but it seemed more out of obligation than genuine enthusiasm for their manager’s selection. In the first European game since their Champions League ban was handed down, they sang “F— UEFA” with much more vigour.
Jesus, City’s only recognised striker on the pitch, started on the left wing. At times, Bernardo Silva and De Bruyne looked like a front two. Sometimes it was 4-4-2. On other occasions it looked more like 4-2-4-0. It was the type of team that would be hailed as genius if things went right. And for most of a chilly evening in central Spain, they did.
“We had 10 free days, and in those days, I watched the most amount of matches of Real Madrid,” Guardiola said. “Their defensive game was different. That’s why we changed. The space was there to attack, but never since I’ve been a coach have I gone to defend.
“[Zinedine] Zidane will look at what we’ve done, and the second leg will be different. We have to adapt quickly and try to go there to win the game.”
Even before Real Madrid took the lead, City had registered 10 shots to Real’s five, with Thibaut Courtois forced to make good saves to deny Jesus and Riyad Mahrez. Jesus had another effort cleared off the line, and Mahrez whipped a shot past the far post after a driving run forward by De Bruyne. By the end, City had mustered 16 shots to Real’s nine and won the on-target count eight to three.
Talk in the Spanish capital ahead of the game was that Zidane’s team were not playing well, and a run of just one win from their past four games in all competitions appeared to back it up. But when Isco scored, they looked ready to nick another big result in the competition they have made their own.
The goal, when it came, had nothing to do with Guardiola’s elaborate system, and he will argue that he cannot account for individual mistakes. In the 60th minute, there were three — a mix-up between Nicolas Otamendi and Rodri and then Kyle Walker’s failure to clear — and when Vinicius Junior sprinted clear, he looked up to see Isco on his own in the penalty area. Ederson was required only to pick the ball out of the net.
Then came the chaos that these knockout ties often throw up.
Jesus headed in a vital away goal after fine work from De Bruyne on the left before Sterling, on as substitute in the 73rd minute, ran at Dani Carvajal and was brought down in the penalty area. De Bruyne, the driving force behind the comeback, did the rest. He should probably take spot kicks more often.
At the final whistle, the City players, wearing their Hacienda-inspired change kit, went over to salute the away supporters, who were already turning their little section of the Bernabeu into a scene reminiscent of the famous Manchester nightclub. They sang in protest at UEFA and in support of their owner, Sheikh Mansour, but the biggest statement was delivered by their team. Real Madrid’s crown is slipping.