Gabriel Jesus wheeled away in celebration, hand cupped to one ear, his little joke in an empty stadium. Yet while there was no roar, there was plenty of noise to celebrate the goal that finally dispatched mighty Real Madrid.
From Manchester City’s bench, from Manchester City’s substitutes, from Manchester City’s staff it came. And from the team, too. They knew what Jesus’s goal meant. Three wins from the biggest trophy in the club’s history. Three wins from the prize that vindicates the investment in Pep Guardiola and this side. It is a strange conclusion to the Champions League season, but City can do nothing about that. All they can do is beat what is in front of them – in this case the champions of Spain. And they have done that now, twice, home and away – yet without true home advantage in these sorry times.
And, yes, it took two horrendous defensive errors from Raphael Varane to win this match, but that shouldn’t count against City, either. Both times it was the tenacity of Jesus that forced him into the error. No, he isn’t Sergio Aguero; but he’s a damn hard worker and his finish for the winner last night was sublime.
Rodri played a long ball forward which Varane attempted to head back to his goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois. It fell sloppily short and Jesus pounced. Could Courtois have been faster, braver off his line? Possibly. But Jesus got their first and his touch to send it wide of the giant in Madrid’s goal was placed and weighted to perfection.
So City will play a Champions League quarter-final in Lisbon next Saturday. The following weekend they could be European champions. There is a lot of football, and some very good teams to overcome, but the dream is alive. City’s dream that is. For UEFA, Javier Tebas of La Liga, the Premier League letter writers, this must feel like something of a nightmare.
It looked, at first, that it was going to be easy. Manchester City were very much on touch from the start and, after a defensive calamity sparked their first goal, looked to have found a team as random at the back as Pep Guardiola’s men can be. Of course, it didn’t quite work out like that. Just as defensive deficiencies at City are often outweighed by attacking impetus, so no team outwits Barcelona to win La Liga without being capable of holding their own in the highest company. That Madrid think they could well do without Gareth Bale is something of a clue, too.
So Madrid equalised and by half-time were hitting City’s weak spot with increasing regularity. He’s called Joao Cancelo, by the way, one of a number of left-backs developed during Guardiola’s tenure, none of whom look quite enough. Put together they wouldn’t amount to one Andy Robertson.
And once Madrid had drawn level it placed the game on a knife-edge, with one more taking the game level on aggregate. Had their been any fans in the Etihad it would have been tense indeed – instead the stress was distributed through the lower tier of the main stand where the players and staff from both clubs sat. Manchester City backroom figures bellowed oaths and encouragement in Catalan, depending on whether referee Felix Brych had denied their man a free-kick, or whether City were engaged in ferocious attack. Madrid the same – minus the Catalan, naturally – led by Sergio Ramos, who remains their very visible captain even in the plus cushioned seats usually reserved for high-paying members of The Tunnel Club. Ramos shouted, stood, debated furious with Marcelo when things weren’t going well but, most of all, he whistled. He’s a very good whistler. Sharp, well projected, occasionally tuneful when he wants to draw attention, like urgent birdsong. Early on, when City looked rampant, Ramos was desperately trying to martial and organise his team-mates, from distance. He’s not everybody’s cup of tea – but you can see why he wears the armband.
Madrid certainly missed him early on, once Kevin De Bruyne had signalled City’s intent with a shot deflected wide by Eder Militao. Just two minutes later came the horrid piece of defending that gifted City a 3-1 aggregate lead.
Thibaut Courtois gave the ball short to Eder Militao to his left, and had it returned swiftly. So he tried Raphael Varane to his right, who got into a terrible mess under pressure from Gabriel Jesus. The striker harried him back towards his goal, then nicked the ball from him and, from there, Madrid were rendered too vulnerable to resist. It was a matter of utmost simplicity for Jesus to square the ball to Rahee, Sterling who slotted it past a desperate Courtois, who must have greatly regretting not just booting it.
A moment’s pause, though, to pay tribute to Sterling. This was his 20th Champions League goal and only Wayne Rooney, among Englishmen, has reached that milestone sooner – and Sterling isn’t a striker, remember. More parochially, he is the first English player at Manchester City to score 100 goals for the club since Dennis Tueart in 1981. It was his 35th goal of the season for club and country: heaven knows how many he would get if he was a natural finisher. Wink.
Sterling had a shot from 20 yards dip just over the bar after 15 minutes and from the next attack a quite brilliant jinking run was foiled by an equally outstanding tackle from Casemiro.
And then it was Real Madrid’s turn. Rocked by the opening 20 minutes, they gradually came back into the game, first with a Karim Benzema shot that was tipped out by Ederson, then a low effort from Eden Hazard that pitched awkwardly but was repelled expertly.
The equaliser was coming, however, and in the 28th minute it arrived. Rodrygo absolutely skinned Cancelo on the right and hit a perfect cross for Benzema in the middle. He has been in sublime form this season and his technique was perfect. Surrounded by City defenders he got to the ball and steered a header into the corner past Ederson. And Madrid were back in the game.
Cancelo tried to make early amends with a curled shot that was parried by Courtois, and a poor kick by the goalkeeper allowed De Bruyne to tee up Phil Foden who shot just wide, but this was tight. Every time City advanced but failed to score it felt like a moment they could come back to haunt them. Another fine tackle, this time by Militao, kept De Bruyne out, and Courtois was similarly brave against Sterling. Every time De Bruyne took a corner he tried to score directly from it – maybe due to something he knew about his Belgian team-mate Courtois. Not that any of them came off, mind.