When Josep Guardiola the Man City manager took off the Algerian, Riyad Mahrez with five minutes of normal time left in Madrid and City 5-3 up on aggregate, he and many around the world believed the job was done.
Introducing club captain Fernandinho in place of the Algerian was part of Guardiola’s control plan to see out the match. Nothing prepared anyone but a few die-hard Real fans for the chaos that was to ensue which took the game into extra-time and then a home win.
It was in stoppage time that the very subdued Karim Benzema jabbed a lofted pass into him across the City box, young substitute Rodrygo arrived first at the near post to stab home before any City player could react.
Still no one believed a team like City coached by Guardiola would not see off the remaining minutes – they didn’t. A faint Marco Asensio touch to a hopeful delivery by the rampaging Dani Carvajal got the ball beyond Diaz allowing Rodrygo to climb beautifully and plant his header into the roof of the net. From nowhere, parity.
At the heart of everything Guardiola does with his teams is control. His belief that as long as he can control what the players are able to do during matches via repeated training drills, the players get onto the pitch and control matches by monopolising the football. Last night in Madrid, in the last five minutes and six minutes of injury time, City lost control.
It was former Man United manager, Ron Atkinson that once said “how many other professions in this world does a Manager’s job depend on eleven young men being able to do their job on a football field?”
Former Bolton Manager Sam Alladyce in the same vein, “once those boys cross the white lines and get onto the pitch, your influence as a football manager is incredibly minimal.”
Guardiola sets out to be in total control of what the players do on the pitch. When you watch his teams play you get the impression that they can easily be automatons.
Carlo Ancelotti who was in the opposite dug out in Madrid on the other hand says “I believe you can only truly coach defending. So, I try to do that but leave attacking to the creative attacking and gifted footballers in my teams.”
Not a criticism of the former Milan, Chelsea, PSG and Everton Manager, there was nothing tactically innovative in what he did last night. Rodrygo had to come on, Camavinga had to come on as City had nullified the influence of both Luka Modric and Toni Kroos. He was also very fortunate that Casemiro was able to finish the first half when, in truth, he should have walked following two clearly bookable offences.
Where Guardiola is intense, Ancelotti can be accused of being laidback. It is this laidback approach that has seen Real Madrid come back from the dead against much better opponents in the knockout stages of the Champions League to reach the final.
PSG, Chelsea and now Man City players and Managers will take months to digest or understand how they have lost out to Real this season.
What happened to City last night was the inability of the players – especially the defensive players – to react to what was unfolding before their eyes immediately Real got their first. That is not something that can be coached, that is a character that usually comes from adversity. Or, it can come when players have been allowed to sort out difficulties on the pitch.
Evidence is that as recriminations and faults are distributed following this match, most (if not all) of it will be piled onto the Manager. Yet, had Jack Grealish scored or created an assist in the minutes just before Real’s first goal, it will be City, not Real, that will be playing Liverpool in the Paris final later this month.
As well as Real have done in getting to this final, one can’t help wondering if they would have been to chaos their way through to the final if they had not had the benefit of those home second-legs.
As was written here a day before the first match in Manchester, having Benzema gives Real a chance in any match in this season’s Champions League. He won and scored the decisive penalty that has brought them to the final. He is the conductor of the Chaotic Band.