Manchester City and Real Madrid in Champions League final, just one round early

Written by user

Real Madrid players on the pitch during a training session at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester.  Image date: Tuesday, May 16, 2023. (Photo by Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images)

Real Madrid players on the pitch during a training session Tuesday at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester. (Photo by Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images)

The kings of Europe rolled through the Plaza Sagrados Corazones last Tuesday in a scene befitting a grand finale. Dani Carvajal pulled out his phone to capture it. Thibaut Courtois peered out his window, seemingly awestruck. From their stoic team bus, the Real Madrid protagonists watched a white-clad frenzy full of spinning scarves and billowing smoke. Thousands of fans lined the streets of the Spanish capital to sing from their souls and show their support ahead of a clash at the football top flight.

It was a clash of opposites and equals, a match between the most successful football club and the best team, a monumental match that lasted more than 90 harrowing minutes. Real Madrid and Manchester City dueled under a majestic floodlight. A record-breaking American audience watched on TV. The whole sport seemed to stand still for the occasion, for a game whose only real flaw was that it ended indecisively.

And with that it became a stage setter, a starter for what could be an all-ages Champions League final – except, of course, that it takes place a round early.

City and Real drew 1-1 in Madrid last week. They meet again in Manchester on Wednesday (3 p.m. ET, CBS/Univision/Paramount+). The winner will not claim anything, as the actual Champions League final is a month away; this is only the second leg of a semi.

But for City it’s the highest hurdle, the mystical barrier between a sky-blue machine and elusive acclaim.

For Real, it’s the ultimate test of that mystique, a date with a reborn juggernaut built to topple el rey.

That might all sound a bit hyperbolic, but City have spent 2023 validating every last ounce of hyperbole. It is unbeaten since February 5, on the brink of a fifth Premier League title in six seasons, and tops any reasonable ranking of football’s most formidable sides. FiveThirtyEight estimates that the gap between City and Real Madrid is wider than that between Madrid and Brighton and Hove Albion. According to Opta, City is to Madrid what Madrid is to Feyenoord.

Those assessments seemed on the verge of farce until a ball rolled at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu last Tuesday. City, unfazed, seized the game with structure and stunning skill. They streamed forward and stayed forward, passing with precision and pressing to pin the reigning European champions. For half an hour they were ambitious and on their way to an opening goal – and that’s when Real Madrid struck.

It’s when Real Madrid seemingly always strikes, when the moments get big and Champions League hopes start to fray. Los Blancos, as they are known have been aging and wobbling for several years; but under Carlo Ancelotti, in must-win matches on European nights, they have invariably risen. A season ago they lost to Moldovans and trailed PSG twice in the Round of 16; they trailed Chelsea with 15 minutes left in a wild quarter-final; they trailed City by two in the same semi-final with two minutes remaining.

But they always recovered. In the final, they weathered a raging storm in Liverpool and then crashed. Last Tuesday they did it again. With the entire Bernabéu hot on his heels, Eduardo Camavinga rode forward from his makeshift defensive position and pecked Vinicius Jr. out, who pinged a pile driver into the top corner of the net.

They have won 14 European titles, twice as many as any other club. At half-time last week, they were suddenly on their way to a sixth win in 10 years. They began to flow as City had, forming dizzying combinations in and around the box and aiming from long range. They repeated the familiar story. City seemed helpless.

However, this is a Manchester City team that combines quality with steel. In the 67th minute, one attack was deflected, then a second, but Rodri attacked Real Madrid’s outlet. Jack Grealish and Ilkay Gundogan showed poise. And Kevin De Bruyne, the best midfielder of his generation, ripped a missile that beat Courtois and leveled the score.

And so, seven days later, here we are, awaiting a match overflowing with intrigue. It will provide metaphorical comparisons for everything from boxing to chess. It could surpass the Super Bowl worldwide. It should eventually crown a Champions League winner. City, even with four teams remaining, are a -150 favorite to lift the trophy. Real Madrid is RealMadrid.

First, there is of course the other semi-final, which is 0-0 at half-time with Inter leading 2-0 on aggregate. Locally it is huge. Historically, it’s compelling.

But in the shadow of City-Madrid, the final before the final, it feels like an afterthought.

About the author