Follow our live coverage of Liverpool vs. Real Madrid in the Champions League final.
There is no such thing as fate but there was a sense of inevitability about it all. “You could not write this script” is a line often trotted out by pundits and commentators but you could really write this one.
You could write that Manchester City would be the better team with the better chances and not win. You could write that, no matter how unlikely it appeared, Real Madrid would get the job done.
You could write that because it’s a fairly accurate description of how things have happened this season. And that’s all that happened over the two legs of this Champions League semi-final.
“Another night of magic by the kings of Europe” could easily be on the front page of Spanish sports newspaper Marca on Thursday morning – it is a completely accurate description of what transpired at the Santiago Bernabeu.
And yet that was the message the home fans held up before kick-off. They knew. Deep down, we probably all knew.
City were more than fine in the first half. They were less than fine in the second but they scored anyway. If the “fairly accurate” description above falls down, it ‘s because City still score an awful lot of goals even if there is the unshakable feeling that they miss far too many.
Riyad Mahrez scored the type of goal – out of not a lot – that they supposedly do not score. It looked like City were going through to the final, and on the balance of the two legs, they would have deserved it.
Fast-forward about an hour to the final whistle and the City players looked like they had seen a ghost. In some ways, they had. The ghosts of their missed chances, the ghosts of their recent eliminations, the ghosts of Real Madrid’s finest nights happening all at once – the ghosts of their 13 Champions League trophies. Somehow, they just know how to win it. City do not.
“They’re sad, definitely,” Pep Guardiola admitted afterwards.
Despite all their problems, City had it in their hands. When they scored, they had just taken off Kevin De Bruyne, who was unusually and obviously off color. Bernardo Silva and Rodri were the only two players to have truly impressed.
Every time City won the ball back, they seemed to give it away again. Even their most trusty players did it. Nights like this, like in the final last season, can do that to you. Madrid, even far from their best, can do that to you. They have done it to Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea. It has happened before and it was happening again.
But you can not have breathtaking comebacks without looking like you’re going out. You can not bring yourself back from the dead if you’re playing well. It’s all part of the script.
City had taken off Mahrez for Fernandinho to cling onto what they had. They brought Jack Grealish on to help, to hang onto the ball and win fouls. And more than that, of course.
He danced around the Madrid players and fired off a shot that was, somehow, cleared off the line. Just like when Mahrez hit the post last week and Phil Foden’s snap follow-up was immediately cleared off the line, the ball fell to Foden again but too quickly for him to do anything about it.
Grealish danced through again not long after and Thibaut Courtois, excellent all evening, somehow nudged it around the post.
This is how it happens, though, isn’t it?
Back in Manchester, City played very well but three or four little lapses added up to three Madrid goals. They had far more lapses in the Spanish capital, but until extra time, they had gotten away with them.
But then the Madrid magic finally kicked in. This time, it was a ball dropping over Joao Cancelo’s head at the back post and, somehow, Karim Benzema getting on the end of it. He crossed and Rodrygo, one of Carlo Ancelotti’s inspired substitutes, nipped in front of Ederson. Cancelo can switch off, especially at right-back. Ederson can look helpless quite often, too.
City were still going through at 1-1. In theory, anyway. Yet it felt inevitable that another Madrid goal would come. It always comes.
The home fans, who filled the air with ear-splitting whistles whenever City won a free kick and ran a few seconds down, started to flag. Their players had, too, but the equalizer breathed life into them and it sapped it from City. That’s how it stayed.
Rodrygo scored again, 84 seconds later. Extra time, then, and Benzema hadn’t even scored yet. You could write that one, too. Obviously he would be the one to decide it.
Ruben Dias gave him a helping hand, diving in and conceding a penalty. Why? Because it’s Real Madrid? Because it’s the Bernabeu? Or because he’s an aggressive player who found himself in a team bereft of confidence, in a cauldron, and ill-equipped for extra time?
Kyle Walker had long gone, his ankle giving way after an hour. City were set up to hold onto something, but they suddenly had nothing to hold onto. They reacted well enough, bringing the ball forward, but the oomph was gone.
By the end, Aymeric Laporte had gone up front because he seemed to tweak a muscle. There was little danger of him aggravating it up there: the second half of extra time was never played. The clocked ticked down and there was nothing anybody could do about it.
There was nothing anybody could do about any of this: Real Madrid were making the final, come hell or high water.
“We did not suffer much but we did not play our best but in this moment, semi-finals, the players feel the pressure; feel they want to do it, ”Guardiola said afterwards. “But we were close. Football’s unpredictable, sometimes it’s a game like this and you have to accept it. “
City have their own sense of inevitability: they will surely win this competition one day, surely before Guardiola leaves. Barring a dramatic hiccup, they will have Erling Haaland to help, and that’s not an insignificant factor. They will be back.
But nights like these do add to the sense that they are maybe destined not to win it, at least not without a few more nights of heartaches. A few more Tottenhams, Lyons, Chelsea.
In this very ground in 2016, they came to face Madrid in a semi-final and were patently not ready. That was under Manuel Pellegrini. They have grown since then. They kept the ball away from Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain last season. They beat Atletico Madrid with City’s famous passing game and then with Atletico’s own dirty game.
They were ready to make a second consecutive final. They were so close to battling their way to another one, the most impressive one yet, and denying that Madrid magic. And yet they did not. They could not.
There will be no titanic City versus Liverpool final now. Maybe that is not meant to be, either, just like how Madrid and Barcelona never faced each other during Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi’s peak years. A great shame.
When City get back to Manchester they can sit and look at what they could have done better, and on the night there was a lot. They will not be excused for what was, ultimately, an extremely disappointing night.
But there were two teams on that pitch and one of them are the kings of Europe. No matter how it manifests itself, that counts for a lot.
(Top photo: Alvaro Medranda / Eurasia Sport Images / Getty Images)