Sergio Ramos walked off the pitch and, many imagined, straight out of Europe. “If there is any team, anywhere in the world that can turn this around it is Real Madrid,” Pep Guardiola said. But as the Real fans departed the Bernabéu, leaving their stadium to the Manchester City supporters singing Blue Moon high in the north-east corner, it did not feel like it.
Without their captain, shown the 26th red card of his career at the end of those final 15 minutes that Zinedine Zidane said had been fatal, turning around this 2-1 home defeat will be harder yet.
Maybe it is becoming a habit, and not just for him. As Ramos walked, that sense of invincibility, his air of untouchability, was stripped away. Some of their veneer went with him, yet this runs deeper. A year ago Ramos sat and watched, suspended, from a glass private box as Madrid were knocked out of the Champions League, taken apart by Ajax. This year he will sit in the stands at the Etihad Stadium. He may not watch Real get knocked out again, it is true, and Zidane was entitled to insist “we have to go there and win, and we are capable of that”. But the task before them is greater than they imagined.
Greater even than they imagined as the game headed into those last minutes. Isco’s goal seemed to suggest they were going to do it again, finding a way through the storm, but Zidane lamented a lack of concentration at the end. He talked of errors that should not be committed. “It hurts,” he said, “because we didn’t deserve it.” Yet beyond the bad luck and the worse judgment – Dani Carvajal’s unnecessary penalty was particularly self-destructive – that was debatable.
There were complaints about the refereeing, Vinícius agreeing that officials deliberately blow against Real because they are European royalty. But that does not cut it either and the very fact that they did not find a way through where once they would have done suggests that things are different now. Real did not always march serenely to three European Cups in a row. At times they were fortunate, sometimes absurdly so. And yet there was always something there, some intangible, some strength. For opponents, there was a kind of inevitability.
Ramos called the Champions League “magical”; it had some hold over them and they had some hold over it. Europe was their elixir. Zidane has said before that he sometimes feels like he has some guiding star. He has never not won this competition, remember. Twelve knockout rounds he has been through. There have been moments when they have been on edge, the abyss opening, so it was natural for Guardiola to say if there is any team who can turn this around, it is them.
But if that belief was built not just on their history in a competition they have won 13 times and with which they became almost synonymous, but on what happened over those three years, it may need revising. Or at least some readjustment. This is a different Zidane era now, and with a different team. There is no Cristiano Ronaldo, for a start. And if so many of these men remain the same, that might even be considered a handicap.
Roma, Wolfsburg, City, Atlético, Napoli, Bayern, Atlético, Juventus, PSG, Juventus, Bayern and Liverpool fell. But then, last year, Real did. Now they have done so again, even if there is still the opportunity to get back up and only a fool would bet heavily against it. They had won 2-1 away last season despite being dominated. It seemed Ajax’s chance had gone, and they wouldn’t get another, but they came here and scored four. Here, Zidane admitted Real had scored when they had been at their worst, City’s pressure increasing. Again, it felt like the chance had gone, like Real had done it again but City scored twice. “And could have got another,” Zidane admitted.
There had been moments when Real had seemed inhibited, lacking fluidity on the ball, the confidence of champions. Thibaut Courtois had been magnificent, Guardiola said. They had escaped. And once that would mean you just knew they were going through. They had played with nerves, occasionally overwhelmed, but here they were leading. And then, suddenly, they weren’t. Now they must come back, and they have never overturned a first-leg home defeat.
This place is not impenetrable any more. There is something shifting, some sense of vulnerability. Real have won only one of their last six Champions League games here; last season they dropped 17 points in the league here. This season, it is already eight. When they were beaten by Ajax it was part of a run where in eight days they were effectively knocked out of all three competitions, their season over in March. It was not lost on anyone that this Sunday they face Barcelona. An opportunity sure but an obligation too. Could this be a new reality – even Zidane is no guarantee?
You could not reach them once, but it feels like you can now. Mind you Guardiola always could, and so could Messi. This is the City manager’s sixth win here. He better than anyone knows how hard it is to beat Real but he also knows it can be done.