MANCHESTER, England — Very first thing Wednesday morning, Pep Guardiola’s staff will deliver to the Manchester City manager a meticulously annotated report of his team’s Champions League semifinal against Real Madrid. At roughly the identical time, Carlo Ancelotti, his counterpart within the Spanish capital, will receive something very similar.
Those dossiers will contain temporary snatches of video, each highlighting some key tactical detail. There can be photos, too, offering a snapshot of a scarcely perceptible flaw in a player’s positioning or an expanse of the sector left exposed or a darting run left unconsummated. There’ll, perhaps, be giant arrows in some lurid shade. There will definitely be reams of statistics.
Guardiola and Ancelotti will calm down and comb through them, panning for whatever seam of wisdom they could find, mining deep into the detail within the hope of finding some kernel, some insight which may prove the difference after they play again next week. And as they do it, they’ll know, deep down, that it’s all absolutely, fundamentally, unavoidably pointless.
There isn’t a hidden explanation, buried deep in a screed of numbers or encoded in high resolution pixels, for the way Manchester City managed to beat Real Madrid yet ended the evening feeling prefer it had lost. Or for the way it finished with 4 goals and the feeling that it must have had half a dozen more, or the way it landed a succession of knockout blows only to search out its opponent still standing there, smiling, complaining only of the mildest headache.
The raw numbers of the sport usually are not a magic eye puzzle; they’re barely even a Rorschach test. Irrespective of how long and hard you stare at them, they’ll not suddenly change into a picture, clear and sharp, of something that bears evaluation and interpretation.
They’ll not tell Guardiola how his team might be so obviously, so vastly superior by every available metric and in every conceivable way — slicker in possession and more inventive and inventive and youthful and dynamic — and yet wholly incapable of shaking Madrid from its tail.
And they’ll not enlighten Ancelotti as to how his team, by some means, stays alive and fighting on this semifinal, with a likelihood over 90 minutes in front of its own fans, baying and roaring, to defy all human logic and make the Champions League final. They’ll actually not tell him how Real Madrid manages to maintain doing this, over and once again, seeming to attract strength because it comes ever closer to the sting, continually finding the need and the wit to conjure its curious, self-perpetuating magic.
Guardiola himself had acknowledged that before the sport, half in jest, suggesting that there was not an unlimited amount of point in conducting the same old, instinctive evaluation of Real Madrid because Ancelotti’s team is, by its very nature, so chimerical. He meant it, probably, as a mirrored image on the virtuosity of Karim Benzema and Luka Modric, the power of among the finest players of their generation to bend a game to their will, but it surely sounded just somewhat like he was saying Real Madrid doesn’t make sense.
He’s, in fact, too respectful — even of Real Madrid, the club that stood as his archenemy for the primary 4 a long time of his profession — to say that out loud, but his experience on the Etihad wouldn’t have contradicted him.
Real was beaten inside 10 minutes: two goals down, ruthlessly exposed, looking suddenly just like the expensive collection of gifted but ill-matched individuals that each one right-thinking people dismissed them as about 4 Champions League titles ago. David Alaba, his entire profession spent among the many elite, appeared to have been replaced by some callow ingénue. Toni Kroos appeared to age several a long time with every passing minute.
After which, from nowhere, Ferland Mendy slung in a cross, the kind that comes more in hope than expectation, and Benzema planted his foot and shifted his weight and scored, regardless that it was not immediately clear whether each the human body and the laws of physics are designed to work like that.
Irrespective of. City was still slicing Madrid apart at will. Riyad Mahrez hit the post. Phil Foden had one cleared off the road. A beat later, Foden converted an artful, clipped cross to revive City’s cushion, to alleviate the strain swaddling the Etihad.
The ball had come from the foot of Fernandinho, a creaking central midfielder reborn for the evening — in extenuating circumstances — as a marauding fullback. His rejuvenation lasted two minutes. Guardiola was still celebrating when Vinicius slipped past his makeshift opponent, sprinted half the length of the sector, and slipped the ball past Éderson.
City got here again, Bernardo Silva shelling out with all nuance and intricacy and easily kicking the ball, as hard as he could, his shot flashing past Thibaut Courtois. Benzema turned away, grinning ruefully, as if he couldn’t quite consider the holes from which he has to retrieve his teammates.
On anyone else, it might need looked like an admission of defeat, a final acquiescence to fate. But it surely is Real Madrid, and it’s Benzema, and it’s the Champions League, so obviously what happened was that Aymeric Laporte inadvertently — but inarguably — handled the ball in his own penalty area, and Benzema stood up and chipped a shot, languidly and confidently, straight down the center of Éderson’s goal.
Guardiola sat on an icebox within the technical area, his fingers steepling against his brow, in horrified awe, as if attempting to impose some reason on all of it. It’s a thankless task. This game didn’t make sense. Its end result, the one which meant Real Madrid left Manchester with something more concrete than hope, with 90 minutes in front of a baying, willing Bernabeu between Ancelotti’s players and one other Champions League final, didn’t make sense.
There isn’t a data point, no vignette, no piece of research that can adequately explain how Manchester City could beat Ancelotti’s team so comprehensively and yet leave with the tie poised so delicately. Real Madrid doesn’t make sense, not within the Champions League, and all you possibly can do is allow yourself to be washed away by it.