Manchester City haunted by ghosts of past Madrid greats

Pep Guardiola: 'We didn’t speak. No words can help for what all of us feel.' Photo: Carl Recine/Reuters

Tommy Conlon

Yesterday Pep Guardiola began the job of picking his players up off the floor.

Today Manchester City are back to the dreary steeples of English football after the razzle-dazzle of a game last Wednesday that will go down in history as one of those great European nights. And it would be no surprise if their appetite for the domestic bread and butter has temporarily waned after the stomach-churning fare they were forced to swallow in Madrid.

It was nearing 1.0am on Thursday morning when their luxury coach pulled out of the car park at the Bernabéu, their mood funereal behind the blacked-out windows. Another bus contained the coaching staff and ancillary crew while a third vehicle, a kit van, followed behind. They had arrived in convoy full of hope and faith many hours earlier; now the convoy was a cortege.

The champions of England, this uber-elite unit, this special forces football team, were retreating shell-shocked and bewildered. They had been ransacked in little more than ten minutes. There they were, suited and booted, striding up to the foyer of the Champions League final; the automatic doors had already slid apart; the maître d’ was smiling his welcome. Then: bang bang. And bang again. From 3-5 up on aggregate in the 90th minute to 4-5, 5-5, 6-5: the doors were snapped shut with their noses just a millimetre from the glass.

In a stunning counter-coup, the royal house of Madrid had put the Mancunian parvenus back in their box. The old-money Spanish aristocrats had kept at bay for another season the new-money ambitions of the Abu Dhabi petrostate.

When Guardiola turned up for his Friday press conference back in Manchester, he said he had yet to address the players about events at the Bernabéu. “We didn’t speak. No words can help for what all of us feel. It is just a question of time, sleep as well as possible and think of the next target.” The next target is Newcastle United today at the Etihad, with the Premier League title race between City and Liverpool half-way down the home straight.

He didn’t have much time therefore to get the toxins of Wednesday night’s trauma purged from their system. How, he was asked, could they forget about it before this afternoon’s match? Guardiola had been clutching at straws intermittently during the press conference. But with this question at least, he wasn’t in denial. “They don’t have to forget,” he replied, “how do they forget? We’ll play Newcastle thinking of it, for sure.” The manager didn’t doubt that his players would be focused and committed for the game, he added. But presumably if they are going to play Newcastle while still “thinking” about Madrid, they will hardly be at it 100 per cent today.

Maybe they won’t need to be. They are so deeply grooved in their method by now that they can put away inferior teams while playing on automatic pilot. Guardiola’s teams don’t need to be emotionally invested in every game to win it. They generally just have to be technically clinical in every game. It is usually sufficient.

They hadn’t been clinical in their finishing during the first leg in Manchester on April 26. They could have fetched up in the Spanish capital last Wednesday with a three or four goal lead. As it was, Riyad Mahrez’s strike in the 73rd gave them a two-goal cushion with 17 minutes left in the tie. That should have been sufficient too.

The black box found in the debris of this particular plane crash has since been torn apart in the search for answers. Many investigators, professional and amateur, have confined their search to the data, to the telemetry of game management, tactical substitutions, defensive alignments and so on. Many more have looked beyond the scientific entrails and ventured into realms of the spiritual, to the hinterland between past and present, to the voodoo wrought by tradition on fortunes in the here and now. Real Madrid had summoned the ghosts of glories past to the great cathedral in their moment of absolute crisis.

“This is not football,” declared one Spanish radio commentator, “it’s a paranormal phenomenon. There is no way to explain it football-wise.” The front page headline on Marca demanded an opinion from an authority even higher than John Giles: ‘Come down God and explain it’, they splashed. The same paper in its coverage declared that City had seen a haunting — “shadows, ghosts, witches”. Another front page led with the headline ‘De Otro Mondo’ — from another world.

Rodrygo Goes, a 21-year-old Brazilian, carved his name in Madrista annals with his two injury-time goals. It didn’t matter that he was born in the 21st century. It didn’t matter that he needed history lessons to learn about Real’s 13 previous European Cups. Once he put on the jersey, he inherited the mantle; he inherited the empowerment and the entitlement also.

Guardiola on Friday found himself looking for explanations in the spirit world too. It was almost as if the current crop of Los Blancos, he speculated, had in their hour of need conducted some sort of running séance with their legendary forebears. “Real Madrid has done it many years. They have this belief for the history, for the past, for the history of the players; the players that come later, they feel [the former stars] are there, they feel Di Stefano, Puskas, Raul, Cristiano, Higuain, all the strikers before and Rodrygo knows ‘I have to do it because they have done it’ and this is part of that.”

So you can pay £100m all you like for Jack Grealish but, despite those enormous calf muscles, he is still only Jack Grealish. He is not Bill Murray, he is not a ghostbuster. And you can spend one billion pounds trying to conquer Europe as well as England but if you are up against great players from beyond the grave, then this is the kind of opponent against which not even endless oil money can compete.

Sceptics sniffing around for hints of spin in Guardiola’s supernatural thought experiments might point out that it is hard to pin the blame on the manager when he finds himself playing against men in white sheets as well as men in white jerseys.

Today he faces a club where more oil money, this time out of Saudi Arabia, is soon to come gushing in torrents down on top of them. But at this early stage of the project, the Magpies should still be easy pickings, even for a City side carrying all that emotional baggage from Madrid. Unless, perhaps, Newcastle can summon the shade of Jackie Milburn to their cause as well.

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