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There were five and a half months between Manchester City’s first-leg tie against Real Madrid at the Bernabéu, and the return leg at the Etihad Stadium, but it was the same scoreline and the same unique intensity that saw Pep Guardiola’s side come up trumps in both games.
The Champions League has long been City’s bug bear – a competition where the team’s performances seem to always dip below the supreme levels set by the club in the Premier League. But this time, City proved their mettle in Europe’s premier club competition, and improved their chances in the odds on the UEFA Champions League.
It was a tie delicately poised, and balanced on a knife-edge in the wake of the long suspension of European football as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Real Madrid had since won La Liga after an impressive return to action domestically, and you could’ve forgiven Manchester City fans for being somewhat nervous ahead of the Champions League last-16 return leg, despite City’s 2-1 aggregate lead from the first leg back in February.
But City’s style of play on the night vanquished the doubts that have surrounded Guardiola’s men in the Champions League. It was a frantic, urgent performance in the best possible sense. City did not merely cling to their aggregate lead and away goals, instead they went out and took the game to the Spanish champions.
There was anger in the performance, anger perhaps created by Liverpool’s commanding triumph in the Premier League, and indeed City’s limp defeat to Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final. The Champions League is the Manchester club’s last chance to secure more silverware in this long, drawn out season, and they aren’t going to give it up in a hurry.
City’s singular focus and drive was evidenced by the manner in which they scored their goals in the 2-1 win at the Etihad. Both came as a result of irresistible pressing from the home side, led by the indefatigable Gabriel Jesus, who gave Real Madrid’s Raphaël Varane a night that will haunt the Frenchman’s dreams for weeks to come.
For the first, Jesus nipped in to dispossess Varane close to Real’s penalty area, before teeing up Raheem Sterling to slide into an empty net. After just nine minutes played, City and Jesus had already asserted how this game was going to be played.
The second was entirely down to Jesus’ persistence and brinkmanship, pursuing Varane deep into the Real Madrid half before capitalising on a poor downward header to dink the ball delicately past Thibaut Courtois and into the net, rubber stamping City’s progression to the quarter-finals and inflicting yet more misery on the despairing French defender.
Of course, City did not have it all their own way, and they were never likely to, given Real Madrid’s qualities in every area of the pitch. Karim Benzema’s headed equaliser provided a test for Guardiola’s side, but they didn’t crumble as they have done in past Champions League ties where the pressure has told, instead they stuck to their game plan, weathered the storm, and delivered on the expectations which have long surrounded them.
The next test is Lyon in the quarter-finals, as the Champions League jets off to Lisbon for its final stages. All matches will be single-legged affairs from now on, and that creates the kind of level playing field that should lend itself to City’s strength in depth. It’s been a long, hard season that so far hasn’t yielded the success City aspire to. But they now have the chance to make it a memorable end to the campaign if they can secure that elusive European Cup.