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A Clash of Civilizations in the Champions League Semifinal

Real Madrid’s class and panache withstood City’s overwhelming onslaught—if only for one game

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It is easy to see a clash between Manchester City and Real Madrid in the Champions League semifinal as the ultimate contrast of footballing cultures: If City are the brash young upstart of European football, then Madrid are its landed gentry. The latter have been crowned its kings on 13 occasions, while the former still await their first European title. Historians might see this as a reductive reading of the situation—as a club, City were actually founded several years before Madrid, but in terms of prestige, the Mancunians are still playing catch-up. The pattern of Tuesday’s first leg, which Manchester City won 4-3, perfectly illustrated this dynamic. Pep Guardiola’s team soared forward and moved the ball at bewildering speed, only for Madrid to drag them back to reality, firmly reminding them of the established order.

Generations from now, Manchester City will remain as the definitive study of what happens when the unlimited financial resources of a petrostate meet the finest coaching the game has seen. There were moments in the game against Real Madrid when they were so far ahead of their opponents that the effect was almost futuristic. They frequently left the scene with the ball several seconds before Madrid players arrived to tackle them, giving the impression that they had mastered short-range time travel. In doing so, they continued to remind us how much Guardiola has revolutionized the game. Before he arrived at Barcelona, it was difficult to imagine that a midfield composed of physically slight players could be utterly dominant. Yet ever since he conquered the world at Barcelona with his trio of Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, and Sergio Busquets, he has produced midfields typified by their elegance and their elusiveness and known for their resilience rather than their aggression. This could be seen most of all in the play of Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester City’s playmaker, and Phil Foden, the man who will one day succeed the Belgian. In previous matches, Foden has often been targeted by a certain type of defender who perhaps sees his thinness as an affront to traditional masculinity, and they give him a tremendous kicking only to see him emerge time and again from each match with an assist, a goal here and there, and generally with all three points.

Foden was so good on Tuesday that Madrid’s defenders largely kept a respectful distance from him. De Bruyne, meanwhile, was utterly magnificent, strolling about the premises like the lord of the estate. When a team is playing Madrid, you can judge the brilliance of its midfield’s performance by how much fun Luka Modric has against them. If an opposing midfield is not playing well, then Modric will scamper gladly about at the edge of the opposition’s area, playing a series of sharp and smart diagonal passes to his wingers, looking dominant and carefree. Against City and De Bruyne, though, Modric at first remained largely anchored in his own half, giving concerned glances to his teammates, his perpetual frown suggesting that this would be a long night.

Yet Modric need not have worried because if this Real Madrid team has shown anything this season, it is a disregard for the odds. He and his teammates—helped by the fact that their hosts ended up fielding a 36-year-old Fernandinho as a fourth-choice right back against Vinícius Júnior, the fastest player on the pitch—eventually roused themselves from a 2-0 deficit. There was one moment in the first half when it seemed that Manchester City would make it 3-0 and proceed to an unassailable margin of victory, but a moment was all it was. Karim Benzema currently seems to have a relationship with the footballing cosmos where, as soon as the universe is about to anoint a new ruler, he stirs into life to resist them. On two occasions when Manchester City looked as if they were enjoying their two-goal lead, Benzema struck. The second goal is the one that, despite City’s outstanding attacking football, will claim the bulk of the attention: a Panenka, the epitome of footballing guts, a penalty floated directly into the middle of the goal while City goalkeeper Ederson flailed helplessly beneath it.

As many readers will already know, the Panenka is named after Antonin Panenka, who took a penalty in this style to win the 1976 European Championship for Czechoslovakia against West Germany. These days, the Panenka is often used for show, as a sign of contempt for the goalkeeper before you, but when displayed by the expert practitioner—as by Benzema on Tuesday—it is something more. It is a calculated attempt to shake, if not shatter, the spirit of your opponent, to stun the opposing crowd with your audacity. Judging by the body language of Manchester City’s players at the final whistle, several of whom trudged from the field as if they had been dealt a defeat, Benzema was successful.

There was something fittingly old-school about Benzema’s use of the Panenka to Manchester City. It was a timely reminder of the ancient ways: a little as if a Lamborghini owner had returned to their mansion one evening, only to find that someone had blocked their driveway with a horse and carriage. It was a reminder that, regardless of the advanced technology with which you try to beat them, Real Madrid will always be there by the roadside, ready to block your path to European glory: this week, next week, and for years beyond.