Of all the astonishing facets of Real Madrid’s latest Champions League miracle this week, perhaps the eeriest was what it did to Manchester City’s players in the second leg of their semi-final at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Under Pep Guardiola, City have become one of the most meticulously orchestrated teams on the planet. They have swept all before them in the Premier League in large part because every player knows precisely what their role is and what they are supposed to do.
When extra-time began at around 11pm on Wednesday night in the Spanish capital, Guardiola’s men did not seem to know where they were, much less what their response should be. Goals in the 90th and 91st minute from substitute Rodrygo left them looking utterly shellshocked.
From that point on there could only be one winner, and it was no surprise that City contributed to their own downfall by giving away a penalty early in extra-time. Karim Benzema converted it with all of the conviction that had drained out of the visitors to win 3-1 on the night and 6-5 on aggregate.
Disappointments in the Champions League are nothing new for City, who are yet to win Europe’s top club competition despite enjoying more than a decade of success under Abu Dhabi ownership. But this one cuts deeper.
The manner of their defeat to Real Madrid and, specifically, their total inability to muster a response raises serious questions about Guardiola’s City.
Have Manchester City forgotten how to think for themselves?
Are they so well-drilled that they have lost the ability to think for themselves when an occasion veers off the script, as it did so dramatically? We have seen hints of it before, in that City have repeatedly struggled when falling behind.
Is there a flaw in Guardiola’s apparent preference for compliant players who can follow his masterplan to the letter over those with more individualistic streaks? What is gained in obedience might be being lost in leadership.
Both of these might be gross oversimplification given the chaos that unfolded over a few febrile minutes. City are not the first European rival to go to pieces in Madrid this term; Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea were also overwhelmed in the Bernabeu.
Each comeback has been remarkable in its own right, but PSG’s collapse was just their latest in this competition and Chelsea’s defeat was in keeping with their late-season decline in form. City were thought to be more resilient.
Liverpool, their rivals for the domestic title, stared into the abyss themselves during the other semi-final on Tuesday night at Villarreal but found a response in the form of three second-half goals. Just as that must have reinforced their self-belief, so City’s capitulation must surely weaken their resolve as the season reaches its crescendo.
Guardiola said City would need “one or two days” to get over the setback. Their next game is at home to Newcastle on Sunday, by which time they will be two points behind Liverpool, who must now scent blood, if they beat Tottenham on Saturday evening.
Whatever the cause of City’s stupefication in Madrid, they will have to quickly locate the smelling salts. Having been on course for a double just days ago, it is now not unthinkable that City could sleep-walk into finishing the season empty-handed.