Man City reach perfection with Real Madrid humiliation that raises complicated questions
The peak that Pep Guardiola has been building this club towards, and a point that European football has long been leading towards. Manchester City have not yet won the Champions League or the treble, but they passed the most difficult challenge in eliminating the defending champions, and did so with a 4-0 victory that went beyond easy.
The first half-hour was perhaps Guardiola’s finest spell of football in Europe, and maybe the best ever by an English club on this stage. It will surely be seen as the statement performance should City go and finally lift the trophy in Istanbul, as they reach the stage for the second time. Real Madrid, of all clubs, were humiliated. The entire game has been left trailing in City’s wake. Internazionale are going to need something close to a miracle to beat them, such is City’s level. It is why so many referred to this as the real final. City ended up reaching Istanbul without much of a struggle of all. They have only gone behind in games - in any competition - three times in the last four months.
This just never looked like being another of those. From the very start of the game, City came out ferociously determined to ensure they couldn’t possibly have a repeat of last season’s elimination. It was a storm. The manner they came at Madrid, and the way that Thibaut Courtois initially performed miracles of his own to stop them, briefly made it seem like it was going to be another one of those nights.
City just came with so much force they utterly blew that away. It instead became one of the club’s great nights.
It wasn’t all about that force either, irresistible as it was. The game was ultimately cut open, and effectively decided, by the most remarkable finesse from Kevin De Bruyne. After an opening period where City had looked to pummel Madrid with crosses towards Haaland, the Belgian then played the most divine reverse pass to just put Bernardo Silva into space to drive the ball past Courtois. The goalkeeper this time had no chance.
It was the least Bernardo deserved for his performances of late, and he soon had more. Madrid again buckled under the pressure. Bernardo headed home. That was it, after just 37 minutes, but it had felt done long before that. A 76th-minute Eder Militao own goal only added insult to punishment for Madrid, as City played around and through them. Julian Alvarez then wrapped it up to turn a comprehensively convincing victory into a humiliation.
It was maybe the defeat that had long been coming for Madrid. It was always going to be City that subjected them to it.
The fans were joyously doing the “Poznan” as their players just enjoyed possession in that way Guardiola demands, the very dance a reminder of earlier times when the club had started this journey under this project but still weren’t on stages as grand as another Champions League final.
It was joyous.
That should also provoke more complicated discussions, that very few people really like to have as they are enjoying shows like this.
Any discussion of best-ever English performances in Europe really needs to bring in context like the fact this is an Abu Dhabi state project, that has also become the most lavish sporting project ever seen.
It is why this incredible level of superiority was as inevitable as that City goal in the early stages. Even the randomness of cup football can’t withstand it indefinitely. Guardiola has been able to reach a point of perfection, from perfect conditions, and an infrastructure almost built to him.
This is brilliantly intelligent planning. It is also obvious, and the sort of thing very few other clubs can afford because they just don’t have the backing over that time.
That time also explains modern football. The story of the modern game is really that, around 15 years ago, a group of autocratic states motivated by an acutely regional rivalry looked at football and saw it as powerful new area of expansion. This, similarly driven along by the sport’s embrace of western capitalism, has led to the long-term distortion.
Is this good for the sport?
No one can deny it’s good to watch, although often at a level that goes beyond sport as a competition. This was certainly an illustration of that. It was never a contest.
The European champions were humiliated. New European champions are about to be crowned.
That’s all part of the show. It’s also part of wider political ambitions, that do bring in questions about sportswashing and human rights records. There's also the context of those charges brought by the Premier League, and how this return to the Champions League final would also have been the club's return to Europe had the Court of Arbitration for Sport not overturned Uefa's punishment in 2020.
None of this should be taken as sympathy for Madrid. They have been one of the most responsible factors in the football landscape looking like it does. The game was for so long disproportionately influenced by their demands. The world they created just got out of their control, and they have now been considerably brutalised by it.
City’s rise just continues that process, though. For the last 40 years, football has been increasingly financially staggered and stretched, with the top end getting narrower and narrower. Every few years, fewer clubs can win. State ownership has taken that to new extremes.
Guardiola has taken this City to extremes. Another treble now awaits, but this is the most triumphant of all.
City aren’t there yet. But, like so much else with the game right now, it feels inevitable.