During the ten years that Manchester City has spent climbing to the top of English and European football, there have been some important passages.
The last four minutes against QPR in 2012 – when their first Premier League title was won – I think of the three minutes it took to stretch a 3-1 lead over Manchester United to 6-1 in Old Trafford earlier that season.
Now, after this, there may be another form shift period when City and Pep Guardiola will one day reflect.
Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling celebrate Manchester City’s second goal on Wednesday
A goal here with 12 minutes to go, it felt like City might have been looking forward to their last Champions League football match two and a half years when Real Madrid came to Manchester next month.
As it looks now, remember that UEFA City will not invite you to play in the next two editions of this competition. And although City’s appeal against their conviction in the hours before the kick-off here can still change that landscape considerably, the way this match was on its way felt very ominous on what was a very flat evening at the Bernabeu at the time.
But just when City needed another stop in their history – just when they needed something to give Guardiola and his players a season and maybe even beyond – they came up with something.
Between the 78th and 83rd minutes of this game, City scored not once but twice. Once would have done as it happens. An away goal and a 1-1 draw would have been enough to take to the Etihad stadium to offer a Real side that did nothing to scare or impress anyone.
Pep Guardiola gives instructions to Raheem Sterling as he prepares to get off the couch
Yes, one would have been enough. Real – however poor they were – had created a couple of half chances after Isco had given them the lead on the hour and as such City could possibly be two more down and away from the competition.
But as it turned out, the header of Gabriel Jesus was soon followed by a Kevin De Bruyne penalty and out of nowhere City had changed something bleak and miserable in their most important win of the season.
Sometimes it needs something like this to bring a team to life and give it a boost. Maybe it also helps with faith. City had previously defeated United when they plundered Old Trafford on that incredible day under Roberto Mancini in October 2011.
Indeed, they had defeated them six months earlier in the semi-final of the FA Cup in Wembley.
But that day in Manchester represented much more than a big win, proving to the City players that they were ready to take the next step, and just over six months later – at home with QPR on the last day of the season – they did Which.
Gabriel Jesus scored City’s crucial equalizer to turn what looked like a gloomy night
After this, comparisons can still be made. Europe has always felt a sort of strange, non-quantifiable challenge for the city, whoever the manager has been. After this it may not be so anymore and it is the way it happened that might trigger the switch in their minds.
This was a strange night that looked like a bad night and then became an incredibly good one. On the one hand it was a night of classic European cats and mice, a night in which everything changed in an instant.
But football didn’t fit for the most part. It was a bad game for long periods, a game that was formed early by the special team selection of Guardiola.
The Catalan returned to this stadium for the first time in six months and his impact was felt as soon as the team magazines fell. No Raheem Sterling, no Sergio Aguero and – even stranger – no Fernandinho. For such a big game, he had made a hat trick of very large phone calls.
For a long time his team was flat. Like Madrid, they recorded their lowest number of first half shots on goal in Europe since a match here against Galatasaray in 2013.
It felt like Guardiola had disappeared by leaving Sergio Aguero on the couch
Frankly, it looked and felt like Guardiola had disappeared. There are major risks associated with such selections. But over time his team grew into the match and were actually the better side and finding a threat the moment Isco ended a real escape to beat Ederson from just 13 yards with half an hour to go.
City did not threaten to blow over Real’s house when they were looking for parity, but their football was progressive. Guardiola’s substitutions were also appropriate, and it was one of them, Sterling, who won the penalty that completed the comeback.
These are strange times for City. Liverpool will have taken their league title from them by Easter and only the courts can give them a ticket for next year’s Champions League.
But still it felt like something important was happening here. A victory at a European superpower always means something, but one day we may feel a bit bigger than what happened this week in Spain.
City’s relationship with the Champions League is not over yet.