Manchester City and Real Madrid Will Eventually Have to Be Themselves
Erling Haaland had his instructions. His Manchester City teammates were methodically working the ball from the center circle all the way back to Ederson, the goalkeeper, but Haaland was not watching. He knew what was coming. Ederson pitched the ball high into the night sky, an unusually rudimentary opening gambit for a team coached by Pep Guardiola.
Haaland was not watching, either, as the ball reached the apex of its parabola and started to descend. He was moving to where it was going to make landfall. He started to gather a little speed. And then, just as the Real Madrid defender David Alaba met the ball — his header sending it back into the sky — Haaland arrived, crashing into him. Not dangerously or recklessly but, with only about 40 seconds elapsed, certainly ominously.
Guardiola being Guardiola, of course, the working assumption has to be that this was all preordained, the sort of effort that he has spent time perfecting on the training ground for Tuesday’s match. An understudy would have been drafted to act as Haaland’s crash test dummy. Haaland, the Norwegian striker, would have been lectured on the finer points of clattering technique. No, Erling, don’t barge into him like that; lead with the shoulder just a touch more.
In this case, though, perhaps the agency lay elsewhere. Standing behind Alaba, watching the opening skirmish unfold, was Antonio Rüdiger, the German defender. Happenstance had brought him into Real’s lineup — standing in for the suspended Eder Militão — but he is not the sort to back away from a test of strength.
Rüdiger has that valuable knack, for a central defender, of ensuring he gets the game he wants. He may as well have been licking his lips at the sight of Haaland’s opening salvo on Alaba. Clearly, this was going to be his sort of evening.
This Champions League semifinal was, on a macro level, always going to be cast not just as a tussle between old glory and new money, the establishment and the aspirant, but as a conceptual collision, too. Carlo Ancelotti’s Madrid is inherently improvisational and player-centric; Guardiola believes, more than anything, in the power of his collective, his system. It is free jazz against orchestral arrangement. (The score, after the first of two legs, is 1-1; no sweeping conclusions on scant evidence can yet be drawn.)
But it was also — and at times, it seemed, mainly — an arm wrestle between Rüdiger and Haaland. That is not to suggest that either player is nothing but brawn, of course. Rüdiger’s job is to ensure that things do not happen; his successes are, often, inherently invisible to those not blessed with his foresight. Likewise, for someone so large, Haaland can make it very difficult to say with any certainty where he is at any given time, right up to the point when he materializes, peeling off an opponent’s shoulder.
On this occasion, though, both players willingly indulged what might be described as their more muscular instincts. For an hour and a half, the two of them pulled and pushed and strained and tensed, relishing the atavistic thrill of it, each trying to establish nothing grander than sheer physical dominance over the other.
Here was Haaland, dropping deep to pick up the ball, being thrown to the ground by Rüdiger. Here was Rüdiger, for some reason slipping his head through the crook of Haaland’s elbow, effectively giving his consent to be placed in a headlock, grinning in (presumably) accidental homage to Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” as he did so.
Most judges, by the end, would have scored it a split decision: Haaland did not score, a rarity this season, and in truth had only a couple of sights of goal; his presence was central, though, in creating the space that led to Kevin De Bruyne’s equalizer for City, the strike that will make Guardiola’s team the slight favorite when hostilities are resumed next week in England.
And that, perhaps, will not displease either coach. For all their philosophical differences, what was striking about this game was just how aware both teams were of the other’s strengths, their capacity to inflict damage. That, more than anything, might have been the enduring lesson of their encounter in a semifinal last season: Madrid conscious of just how good City can be; City conscious that a team can be as good as it likes against Madrid and still lose.
Real, on home territory, was at times so passive that it tried its fans’ patience; the Bernabéu is not used, after all, to its visitors having the temerity to keep the ball for long periods of time. There was a point, midway through the first half, when City’s passing started to affront the crowd’s dignity: What had started as whistling turned, slowly but surely, into jeers.
For Ancelotti, though, that was a price worth paying: Tactically, strategically, it made sense for Real to dig in, to sit deep, to lie in wait, and then to pick its moments. A few minutes later, his approach bore fruit: Eduardo Camavinga, playing the hybrid fullback/midfielder role that is so de rigueur these days, spotted a gap and levered it open, then found Vinícius Júnior in sufficient space to fizz a shot past Ederson.
Even a goal down, though, City did not see the need to adopt a more assertive, more aggressive posture. Guardiola’s insatiable appetite for possession is not a purely offensive maneuver: To some extent, it is a defensive measure, too. More than he would like to admit, perhaps, he hews to his old rival José Mourinho’s adage that “whoever has the ball, has fear.”
If Guardiola’s team is in control, he knows the opposition cannot score. In those moments, watching the ball sweep hypnotically between his players, he can feel safe. Against Madrid, a team whose superpower is its ability to score at any moment and effectively without any warning, that is doubly important.
It was, both sorts of coaches seemed to have decided, that sort of occasion, one in which the focus was on preventing the opposition from expressing its identity. And so Haaland, the most devastating forward in Europe, a player who has seemed at times in his debut season in England like an inevitable force of nature, was employed — at least in part — as a battering ram.
Guardiola and Ancelotti will both take heart that their approach worked, that nothing has yet been lost. Both will know, though, that at some point it will not be enough merely to stop the opposition; to win, someone will have to be themselves.
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