Up to the Etihad Stadium, they walked to see this. Heading to the lights of Gorton and Beswick and surrounding areas, Manchester City supporters of all ages came out dressed in sky blue, coming in the hope that a curse could be broken.
They’ve seen a lot in the 20 years since they left Maine Road and have tried to make this part of Manchester feel like home. Rarely, however, have they seen so much like this.
Here, against the 14-time European Cup winners, Pep Guardiola’s players offered their supporters something close to footballing perfection. Anything half as good as the one against Inter in Istanbul next month and City’s Champions League curate will eventually be sidelined. City are, in truth, the best team in Europe for quite some time. Put them in one of Europe’s top leagues and over the course of a season’s games they would win it. They had already beaten Germany’s top team Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals this year.
Now Spain’s second-best team have been firmly put in their place and there is only one contest left with Italy’s third-best team. Nothing is guaranteed in football. City discovered this when they lost to Chelsea in the final two years ago. Still, it’s Inter.
Kyle Walker proved too fast and too strong for Vinicus Jr in the return game at the Etihad
In the first half it looked like Vinicius would get the better of Walker and go through on goal
But the Man City full-back showed his recovery pace by catching Vinicius and making the tackle
It was majestic from City. Control, purpose, execution. A manager’s dream. The Etihad were alive at kick-off. Anyone saying this lot isn’t up to the job should have been there.
Their team, meanwhile, were as irresistible as they had ever been in Guardiola’s seven years. On Tuesday, the Catalan great claimed his legacy was already safe at City. He delivered that line with a smile because he knows it’s not true.
He still has one obstacle to overcome, one more step to take. City have scored four here, however. Four ! Real are the most successful club in European football but they have stripped down. Embarrassed and stripped of his dignity.
And buried beneath it all was the history of the contest that never was. Kyle Walker vs. Vinicius Junior Mk II was the subplot we were told to look for. But it’s hard to judge a competition when only one of the fighters is playing.
Last week at the Bernabeu, Walker revealed, Vinicius tried to embarrass him by performing a ‘rainbow flick’ up and over the defender’s head.
It’s the kind of thing footballers usually do at the training ground. Here at the Etihad, there was no rainbow for the Brazilian. For much of that game, he looked like he was walking through Manchester mud.
If a 22-year-old who some have tried to position himself as the best young player in the world has had a more anonymous 90 minutes, he will have already tried to bury the memory. Indeed from the 20th minute, Vinicius had reached a level of latent frustration. And that, in turn, indirectly played a role in City scoring their first goal.
Of those players in black, none seemed to take City’s extraordinary dominance as personally as the young Brazilian. Teammates such as Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Karim Benzema have been there for years. They have been here before, if not often.
Vinicuis, however, was noticeably unsettled by the early flow and after Erling Haaland was denied by a wonderful save from Thibaut Courtois in the 21st minute, he frantically waved the four Real defenders, urging them to try to press their opponents further up the field.
Moments later, Vinicius sought to control a throw-in but, perhaps disturbed by his own sense of irritation, applied a first touch so heavy that it simply sent the ball back to City. Within a minute, Real were behind as City moved the ball upfield and back to Walker and Kevin de Bruyne to open the spaces needed for Bernardo Silva to steal and score.
The Man City defender comfortably got the better of the Brazilian in City’s 4-0 win
The battle between Walker and Vinicius was hinted at after last week’s first leg in Spain
It was like the pivotal moment of the game. City had been so dominant up to that point that not scoring would inevitably have fueled that feeling around those games that City and this great competition are simply destined never to get along.
Full-time, however, was a far-fetched and ridiculous thought. As Guardiola and his players gathered in the center circle perhaps to thrill at the moment of an afterglow that doesn’t happen often, Carlo Ancelotti’s Real players were already inside taking off their boots and adapting to the fact that their status as Europe’s best team was no more.
On the big screen in the corner of the stadium, official Istanbul t-shirts were already on sale. City may have struggled to get rid of those who went bad on the night. But on reflection, what was that probability?
City scored four goals here against Real in the first leg of last season’s semi-final. It remains a challenge even now to work out exactly how Real managed to respond with three of their own.
A memory of this night is that of Real skewering City during the break. Vinicius played that night and scored. But Guardiola is nothing if not a coach who can absorb and learn lessons.
Here, City killed Real. It was a masterclass from Guardiola’s team, probably their best performance ever. City fans will have debated it on the way home with their heads full of dreams.
City blew away Real with a 4-0 second leg victory to advance to the Champions League final