'Love City, Hate Uefa’ was a sentiment literally well-flagged at the Bernabeu on Wednesday night as visiting fans used a variety of means — from banners and chants to turning their backs when the pre-match competition anthem rang out — to make clear their displeasure at Manchester City’s Champions League ban.
While they wait to see if the club’s appeal against their punishment for breaching Financial Fair Play rules gets anywhere, the same supporters might reflect on the irony that being able to nurse a sense of grievance, whether justified or not, didn’t appear to do their team any harm against Real Madrid.
You could even argue that it was in part the making of a performance characterised more by qualities like defiance and resilience than the free-flowing football which has been their signature style over the last couple of seasons.
Or at least it has been in England. Less so, on foreign fields and, even more painfully for City, not least when they have come up against opposition they have outstripped in the Premier League. One of the less remarked upon aspects of the whole financial doping saga is that it hasn’t worked, at least not if you take it as read that the ultimate goal of the whole City project, from when the Abu Dhabi group first took control in 2008, was to transform the club into crowned kings of Europe.
Having spent lavishly on a team which could dominate domestically, the long-cherished recruitment of Pep Guardiola was designed to be the final key piece in realising the European dream but, thus far, he has enjoyed no greater success than those who have come and gone before him.
In eight successive attempts before the current campaign, the furthest City had travelled was in 2016 when, just before Manuel Pellegrini made way for Guardiola, City reached the semi-final where, after a scoreless draw at the Etihad, they lost 1-0 to Real Madrid in the second leg in the Bernabeu.
At the same time, their saviour-in-waiting was already nursing his own European wounds, after Bayern Munich had also failed at the penultimate hurdle, losing out to Atletico Madrid on away goals.
Since then, Guardiola hasn’t even managed to emulate Pellegrini’s qualified success, with City losing out to Monaco in the round of 16 in 2017 and, heaping hurt upon hurt, exiting in the quarter-finals to all too familiar foes Liverpool in 2018 and Spurs last year.
All of which means that, if they didn’t already have a point to prove before Uefa cried foul and imposed a tight deadline on their Champions League ambitions, they certainly do now.
And it showed on Wednesday night as the wannabes stung the aristocrats by overcoming the double-whammy of going behind and losing luckless key defender Aymeric Laporte, to take a 2-1 lead into the second leg at home.
They deserved it too, not least for the game-changing performance of man of the match — isn’t he always? — Kevin de Bruyne.
But while Guardiola has received praise for a pragmatic tactical approach which set the platform for their comeback win, it should be noted that, for both sides, this was a game ultimately decided, if not defined, more by what went wrong than what went right.
Two of the night’s three goals originated in woeful errors, with City guilty of cartoon defensive lapses in the build-up to Isco’s opener for Madrid, and Dani Carvajal recklessly diving in on Raheem Sterling to give away a needless penalty for De Bruyne’s coolly-taken winner. And, as the hosts reeled, there was still time for Sergio Ramos to do what Sergio Ramos does, picking up the 26th red card of his Madrid career.
Next up for Real is the Clasico against Barcelona, with the latter holding a two-point lead over their great rivals going into tomorrow’s game. In December, they shared their first goalless draw since 2002 and, on the basis of not just that but what we saw of both sides in European action this week, we shouldn’t perhaps be holding our breath in anticipation of a humdinger at the Bernabeu, Barca’s 1-1 draw with Napoli in the Champions League a largely toothless affair — for cagey, read boring — with Messi policed by a two, three and even four-man security detail for much of the game.
Indeed, mention earlier of Man City going out to Spurs in 2018 serves to remind that after last season’s series of spectaculars in the Champions League — from the round of 16, when even Man Utd got in on the act against PSG, through to those sensational comebacks by Tottenham and Liverpool in the semis — this time around it’s a lot more famine than feast in the club competition many hail as the game’s ultimate barometer of quality.
Bayern Munich, Atalanta and Erling Haaland aside, there hasn’t, in truth, been a whole heap to get hugely excited about in the knock-out stage to date — hell, even Liverpool found themselves struggling to breathe against Atletico — and one can only hope that the decisive nature of the second legs will give us cause to revise that opinion upwards.
In the meantime, Man City will be raging hot favourites to add to their collection of domestic silverware tomorrow when they face Aston Villa in the League Cup Final.
Romantics will hope that struggling Villa, and in particular the estimable Jack Grealish, can rise to the Wembley occasion to produce some giant-killing magic.
However, the fact that you can get odds of 16/1 on that happening says it all about the expectation that City should cruise to three-in-a-row success.
So no famine for City but no feast either, not when you consider that that their title race this season has long since gone off the rails. Against that backdrop, victory for City at Wembley would represent a strange kind of glory and, by season’s end, no consolation at all if Pep and the boys haven’t been able to capitalise to the very fullest extent on one good night in Madrid.