Perfect moments help Man City and Real Madrid set up thrilling encore

Kevin De Bruyne fired in one of two wonder goals in the semi-final  (EPA)
Kevin De Bruyne fired in one of two wonder goals in the semi-final (EPA)

Two perfect strikes, that would have been great enough to crown any European champions, but instead serve as the perfect set-up for the second leg. That was the overriding sense as Manchester City came back from 1-0 down to claim a 1-1 draw at Real Madrid.

It was an absorbing game, elevated by two goals of the highest quality, but the feeling was it was just getting going as it ended. It is instead only halfway, for a match that could well decide almost everything this season - and certainly the competition that means more than anything else.

Real Madrid can perhaps be slightly frustrated that they didn’t claim a killer second goal when City seemed there for the taking. It was uncharacteristic, and left them open to what they often do to everyone else in Europe, but not as uncharacteristic as how the game went for Pep Guardiola’s side. 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 in that time, the fortitude shown might be just as important to finally winning this Champions League that the Abu Dhabi project so desires.

It is the knowledge of such greater powers in the game which has so fired this version of Madrid, and defined their last half-decade, but that’s not quite the case with Carlo Ancelotti. He has his own ways, especially since he also has the record for most Champions League that Guardiola so desires.

That did weigh over this match.

As tends to happen in games on this stage, and especially when the main cast have now met so often, there are echoes of so many previous nights.

Ancelotti had tried this exact approach against Guardiola before. It was on the way to his third Champions League, and Madrid’s 10th, as they sought to limit space for a technically superior Bayern Munich but only around their own box. Ancelotti was prepared to cede plenty of the pitch beyond, which again left a Guardiola team with so much possession, but only because it also allowed his fast players so much space to run into.

City dominated possession but Vinicius Jr’s stunning strike gave Real the lead (REUTERS)
City dominated possession but Vinicius Jr’s stunning strike gave Real the lead (REUTERS)

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 of them. It is one of the most striking elements of this iteration of Madrid. They have so many immensely promising players, who can eat up 80 yards of the pitch in no time. It means they can go from defending to devastating in seconds.

Chief among them is Vinicius Jr, who by this point has long gone from “promising” to perhaps the most effective player in world football, perhaps the best.

The goal was another great illustration of this, as well as a glorious combination of so many different qualities.

There was first of all the divine and deft touch under pressure that was Luka Modric’s pass to Eduardo Camavinga. It was one of those moments that in the instant felt innocuous but actually did so much in one individual move. Modric both released the pressure and released Camavinga. The French international, here as a left-back but potentially one of the best midfielders in the world, just thundered up the pitch in the manner Madrid see as their future.

The actual moment was something else. Vinicius let the ball run across him and, with one touch without breaking stride, almost broke the net with a strike that soared into the corner.

Its impact was all the greater since it had come out of City’s best spell of the game for some time. So it was for the next goal, except this was the reverse. Kevin De Bruyne scored a ludicrously good goal out of Madrid’s best spell. It is another difference from that 2014 match, too. If Ancelotti now has more faster players, Guardiola has better ones, not least the Belgian.

De Bruyne’s strike matched Vinicius’ in its brilliance (REUTERS)
De Bruyne’s strike matched Vinicius’ in its brilliance (REUTERS)

Before then, Madrid had actually sought to replicate their city rivals at Atletico Madrid last season by rattling Jack Grealish. Dani Carvajal shockingly barged him into the advertising hoardings, before Toni Kroos brutally cut him down in midfield.

Madrid were really embracing this approach. It ensured they maybe got more of a hold of it than they expected. They were in full control in the 20 minutes before De Bruyne’s equaliser, and sensing the game was there to be killed. Unusually for Madrid, though, they couldn’t quite manage it. They instead felt the impact of what they frequently do to English sides.

Out of nothing, De Bruyne produced a shot that had everything behind it.

There was maybe a bit more to it than that since he and Rodri had repeatedly tried to catch Thibaut Courtois out from distance. This proved the logic.

The game immediately became one governed by emotions, end to end, both sides probably content to take the draw but neither yet willing to accept it. That meant Federico Valverde destroying the City left side with one luscious turn, with Grealish then matching him through the middle - and the otherwise quiet Erling Haaland racing ahead dangerously - only for Antonio Rudiger to robustly block him and celebrate doing so.

By that point, it felt like the tie was only getting going, and it could have done with a half-hour more.

There will be at least 90 minutes to come on Wednesday, and it could decide the season.