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Soccer

It Sure Feels Like It’s Manchester City’s Time

9:00 AM EDT on May 18, 2023

Bernardo Silva of Manchester City celebrates with teammates Erling Haaland and Jack Grealish after scoring the teams second goal during the UEFA Champions League semi-final second leg match between Manchester City FC and Real Madrid at Etihad Stadium on May 17, 2023 in Manchester, England.
Matt McNulty/Manchester City FC via Getty Images

If there is one truism in Defector's soccer coverage, it is our belief that Real Madrid is the final boss of European soccer. To win the Champions League, a club must either beat Real Madrid or hope that someone else takes down the dark magic emanating from the Spanish capital. Manchester City knows this as well as anyone. In 2021, City was prepared to face Madrid in the final until Chelsea dispatched of the Spaniards in the semis. (Any relief in Manchester over Madrid's elimination was short-lived, thanks to Kai Havertz and Pep Guardiola's no-defensive midfielder formation mistake.) In 2022, City took up Chelsea's mantle and tried to dismantle Madrid in the semis; the Cityzens (ugh) looked set to accomplish the deal before blowing a two-goal lead in the final minutes, a prime example of Madrid's Champions League plot armor.

And so, when the semifinals of 2023 rolled around with City facing Madrid again, there was probably some dread involved. A cagey 1-1 first leg draw in Spain did not help matters. With the addition of Large Norwegian Erling Haaland, City has at times looked the best it ever has under Guardiola this season, but would that be enough to finally, finally, raise the Champions League trophy, in the process also defeating Madrid to make the final? It turns out that City's salvation and domination came not from its massive striker, but rather from one of its smallest players, one who might be on his way out sooner than later. The glory came from Bernardo Silva, twice in 14 minutes:

Really, putting all of City's successes on the shoulders of Silva is unfair to his teammates, and to Guardiola, and to Madrid, who did its best to be accommodating. This was Manchester City at its zenith, dominating every bit of the field in a blitz of a first half that left Madrid looking like so many Evertons and Southamptons. Just like that, City entered halftime with a possession advantage turned into a two-goal lead. Surely the club wouldn't blow this lead, the one so often and so stupidly called "the most dangerous lead in soccer," for a second year in a row, against the same team, in the same stage of the one competition City wants to win above all?

Well, 2023 is, and please stop me if this seems obvious, not 2022. This City is not last year's, nor any of the others in Guardiola's tenure, all of which ended their continental seasons in Champions League failure. This team is, with some starts and stops, particularly in the league, as complete a side as has existed in Europe in recent years.

The defense is sturdy if unexceptional; that's usually good enough. The midfield, still led by superhuman ping-pong passer Kevin De Bruyne, ran roughshod over Madrid's own venerated trio in the center of the park. And the threat of Haaland alone is enough to keep opposing defenses honest. On paper, without the weight of City's Champions League failures and without the shroud of Madrid's monster mentality, this tie went as it should have: Madrid hung on at home before capitulating to a better side on the road. Isn't that how it's supposed to go when the likely winners of the Premier League face a team that is going to finish a distant second in La Liga?

With every Madrid attack in the second half, I expected City to fall over and let its opponents back into the tie. Every single time, that didn't happen. Madrid controlled the ball for the majority of time in the second half, but City absorbed every attack, and Haaland kept pushing the Madrid center back pairing of David Alaba and Éder Militão back to give City space to relieve pressure. When a club has a cyborg in the forward slot, a lot of curses that befell past lives go away in a hurry.

By the time Haaland got a 73rd minute one-on-one thanks to a ridiculous İlkay Gündoğan backheel and still couldn't score, my belief that this tie was over only wavered slightly. That's the type of miss that has plagued Madrid's opponents in the Champions League for years, but here, it just felt like a missed exclamation point, rather than a Kill Bill siren of horrible things to come.

The violence never did arrive for Madrid. Shortly after Haaland's miss, substitute defender Manuel Akanji barely flicked a free kick into a retreating Militão; the deflection beat Thibaut Courtois for City's third and, it turned out, the exclamation point that so many teams never got to land on the defending champions. (As a side note, Courtois was amazing on Wednesday; Madrid would have lost by a lot more without their tall Belgian. No one can really blame him for that own goal.)

After that goal, City held firm, and World Cup champion Julián Álvarez added a fourth just moments after he substituted in for Haaland (what a joy it must be for City to be able to bring a World Cup winner off the bench):

This was a demolition of era-defining proportions for City, and it opens up the possibility that this era—the Guardiola Era if you are generous to City and the Oil Money Era if you are not—can finally have its cherry on top. When the final whistle blew and City clinched its spot in a second Champions League final in three years, my thoughts immediately turned to the end of this laborious journey for Guardiola, and to the final form of this hyper-rich and hyper-efficient club, and to the decade of moves that have led it to, once again, having only 90 minutes against weaker opposition standing in the way of the ultimate glory in European club soccer.

City should beat Inter Milan, who comfortably dispatched its crosstown rivals of AC Milan 3-0 across two one-sided legs, just as it should and did beat Madrid here. City is more talented and better tactically at every point of the field, and Inter is closer to a "magical, once-in-a-blue-moon run through the tournament" than a "dominant league champion outside of England," a la, say, Bayern Munich who, coincidentally, got absolutely rolled by City in the quarters. If all things go as they should on June 10, City will finally win the trophy it most desires, and Guardiola will have his first Champions League title since the magical Barcelona side of 2011.

Of course, the funniest possible outcome is that City loses to Inter in Istanbul next month, so let's root for that, yes?

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