Pep Guardiola and Manchester City fall to Madrid, exit Champions League


Pep Guardiola stares into the abyss.

Pep Guardiola stares into the abyss.
photo: Getty Images

So Pep Guardiola has to eat shit again. I’ll pause if this sentence makes you giggle (I know I am). Armed once again with what is probably the best team in Europe – like he was in Munich and like he was in Manchester – and armed with the most cohesive team in Europe and probably the best team in Europe, Manchester City and Pep will not lift the European Cup. Pep is 0-9 since leaving Barcelona, ​​both at Bayern and City. Usually his failures are the result of cheating he has produced himself, either through line-up choices or tactics. And he could get quite a crap for sending his charges in a more cautious and controlled manner at the Bernabéu yesterday when City created chances at will in the first leg against Madrid and could have been, maybe should have been, tied by four or five at half-time.

But to be fair to Pep, how do you plan this witch’s brew/wizard/fel magic? How do you attack something with logic and planning where logic and planning just don’t apply?

And again, to be fair to Pep, it worked! The first leg was the kind of chaos Real Madrid thrive in. Madrid don’t have a great team. It’s a debate about how “good” they even are. What they have is three or four brilliant individuals, and the kind of space they’ve been granted in the rough and amorphous first leg is just the sort of thing for individual brilliance to flourish. Anything can come from the ether. Pep tried to take that platform away. He wanted to bottle the mist, seal it, and store it in a cupboard.

Which city has Madrid didn’t have a shot on goal for 89 minutes. Karim Benzema had three touches in the penalty area before injury time in the second half. Vinícius Jr. was tied up fairly well by a returning Kyle Walker, one of the few defenders in the world who can match him. Luka Modric’s greatest contribution was passing Kevin de Bruyne over 40 yards to a clearance towards his own net in the first half. That’s it.

If you know how Pep works, you know he doesn’t have time for chaos and inexplicable powers. Everything can be solved. Everything has an answer. You can always exercise more control. Another match where things were open and unpredictable was never in sight. Too much would be left to chance. A stupid red card here, a deflected shot there, too much could happen. And for 90 minutes, literally 90 minutes, Pep had it under his thumb. They even beat Madrid on the counterattack towards the end of the game to take a comfortable two-goal lead overall. Or what should have commanded.

But of course you can’t really command magic, be it from the light or the dark or from the hands of an Italian genius.

One sensed something was amiss when Walker had to leave midway through the second half, third right-back Vinícius Jr having broken two legs. João Cancelo is many things, but he’s not as fast as Walker. Vinícius would be easy. The devil’s work always begins slowly and subtly.

And sure enough, City’s left-back allowed Daniel Carvahal’s cross too easily in the 91st minute, which Benzema knocked back in for Rodrygo. And of course Ederson was too slow to react from his line. But they needed another goal and it was still overtime.

As we now know, you can never take the lid off. Madrid’s equalizer, you can’t explain it. Watch it closely:

Carvahal’s cross is first met by Marco Asensio and it bounces off his forehead. There was no way Asensio was hoping to pass it on to Rodrygo. And by no means did Rodrygo calibrate his header to calculate Asensio’s slight deviation. And yet the ball hits Asensio at the perfect angle to hit Rodrygo at the perfect angle to hover over Ederson. You can’t plan all this. A fraction of a fraction of an inch difference in angle or point, a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a second difference in timing, and the ball splatters anywhere but toward the net. There are professional pool players who weep at this combination of events and wonder how this could have happened. It’s pure luck, you could say, and maybe it is, but from what you’ve seen from Madrid this spring? There is something unspeakable at work here, for as Spock said, “When you eliminate the impossible, what remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Even after this collapse or miracle, depending on your perspective, there was still plenty of time. Madrid had five strikers on the field. For 30 minutes, City should have raged through a midfield that basically left Madrid deserted. There was no structure. But once Madrid has dragged you into chaos, dragging you through the phantom tollbooth, there’s no turning back. There was only one result. It’s likely Rúben Dias didn’t even have his limbs under control when he brought Benzema down in the penalty area in extra time. He was just a puppet, moved to where the spirits wanted him to be.

There is no explanation. Madrid were the worse team in all Champions League knockout stages. Both PSG and Chelsea beat them for three halves from four. City did it even longer. And yet, their ability to transform into a devilish mist allows them to always escape from whatever confines they find themselves in. You can’t handcuff the air.

Liverpool beware. Jurgen Klopp is more comfortable in chaos than Pep, but none have mastered and mastered like this Real Madrid.

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