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


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

The kings of Europe rolled down the Plaza Sagrados Corazones last Tuesday towards a scene befitting a grand finale. Dani Carvajal pulled out his phone to capture it. Thibaut Courtois seemed to be looking out of his window in awe. From their stoic team bus, the Real Madrid protagonists watched a white-clad hustle full of twirling scarves and billowing smoke. Thousands of fans had lined the streets of the Spanish capital to sing from the heart and show their support ahead of the Football Summit clash.

It was a clash of opposites and equals, a match between football’s most successful club and its best team, a monumental game that lasted over 90 exciting minutes. Real Madrid and Manchester City dueled in the majestic spotlight. A record-breaking US viewership watched on television. The entire sport seemed to have stalled for the occasion, for a game whose only real flaw was that it ended in a draw.

And that’s what made it the stage set, a taste of a Champions League final for the ages – apart from the fact that it’s a round early, of course.

City and Real drew 1-1 in Madrid last week. They meet again in Manchester on Wednesday (3pm ET, CBS/Univision/Paramount+). The winner will have no claim as the actual Champions League final is still a month away; This is just the second leg of a semi-final.

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

For Real, it’s the ultimate test of that mysticism, a date with a reincarnated juggernaut built to overthrow El Rey.

This all might sound like an exaggeration, but City spent 2023 checking every last bit of exaggeration. They have been unbeaten since February 5, are on the verge of their fifth Premier League title in six seasons and top any reasonable ranking of football’s best teams. FiveThirtyEight estimates that the gap between City and Real Madrid is bigger than that between Madrid and Brighton and Hove Albion. Opta, on the other hand, says City is to Madrid what Madrid is to Feyenoord.

Those assessments seemed ridiculous until a ball rolled at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu last Tuesday. City went through the game undeterred with structure and impressive skill. They pushed forward and stayed ahead, passing with precision and pushing to pin the reigning European champions. For half an hour they were ambitious and looking for the opening goal – just at that moment Real Madrid struck.

Then Real Madrid seemingly always strikes when moments get big and Champions League hopes begin to dwindle. Los Blancos, as they are called, they have been aging and wobbling for a number of years; But under Carlo Ancelotti they have consistently improved in must-win games on European nights. A season ago they lost to Moldova and were two behind PSG in the round of 16; They were trailing Chelsea in a wild quarter-final with 15 minutes to go; They were two minutes ahead of City in the same semi-final with two minutes to go.

But they always recovered. In the final, they weathered a seething storm in Liverpool and then struck. They did it again last Tuesday. With the entire Bernabéu hot on their heels, Eduardo Camavinga pushed forward from his makeshift defensive position and encountered Vinicius Jr, who fired a stake into the top corner of the net.

They have won 14 European titles, twice as many as any other club. At halftime last week they were suddenly on their way to their sixth triumph in ten years. They started to flow like City, creating stunning combinations in and around the box and shooting from long range. They repeated the familiar story. The city looked helpless.

However, this is a Manchester City team that combines quality with steel. In the 67th minute, an attack was parried, then a second, but Rodri stormed Real Madrid’s exit to the ground. Jack Grealish and Ilkay Gundogan showed their attitude. And Kevin De Bruyne, the best midfielder of his generation, fired a rocket that defeated Courtois and equalized.

And so here we are, seven days later, looking forward to a game full of intrigue. There will be metaphorical comparisons to everything from boxing to chess. It could surpass the Super Bowl worldwide. It was supposed to crown a Champions League winner after all. With four teams remaining, City were the favorites to win the trophy. Real Madrid is real Madrid.

First, of course, there was that the other semifinals Inter defeated AC Milan 1-0 in the second leg on Tuesday, 3-0 on aggregate. It was significant and historic in Italy and in European football history.

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

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