With a quarter of an hour gone at the Etihad Stadium, on a night when this entire lighted stage seemed to ripple and shudder, Phil Foden did something lovely. Haring off in pursuit of a high, lost, floated pass destined for the bleachers, Foden scampered on, feet battering the turf, calibrating angles and arc, and pulled that floated pass out of the sky like a man charming down the moon with a stick.
His first touch cushioned it, his second fizzed it the through the middle of the sea of lost souls previously known as the Real Madrid defence. A muddle of flailing limbs almost bundled a third City goal into their own net. At which point this tie looked done, Real Madrid looked done, skewered, Foden in the middle of his own brilliant, decisive little patch of light.
What exactly happened here? Elite football is, we’re told, a matter of fine details. This is a battle for space. Elite football is a suffocation. It tends towards perfection, towards the elimination of variables And then, it seems, there’s this.
Just over an hour later on the same side of the pitch, Karim Benzema paused, walked up to the penalty spot and sent the ball once again up into that soft Manchester air, completing another gentle arc over the prone form of Ederson.
Benzema’s second goal had pulled the score – let’s just get this right – back to 4-3. And in the padded seats in front of the press box the Madrid contingent leapt up and roared and punched the air, not so much celebrating as laughing, peacocking, flushed with a kind of affirmation. Yes, we are Real Madrid. This is us. This is how we do this thing.
City will be happy, but also wildly frustrated to lead this game by the odd goal in seven heading to the Bernabéu next week. They might have packed this tie away in the opening hour. Instead the team that craves control went into Madrid’s place. And in the end this was a tale of moments – so, so many moments – divvied up between Foden’s early brilliance; and the craft of Benzema, the will of those regal meringues.
Nothing was settled here. There is no sensible way to read a game like this, or to predict what might come in the second leg. It is simply a case of purring over the details, the beauty of those moments.
Foden probably deserves to be picked out for City, if only because he can’t have played better than this on such a stage. So much for the dark arts. This was an illumination, on a night when the Etihad had felt a little underdone at kick-off, as though the magnitude of this game had snuck up on the place.
City were slick and crisp early on. With two minutes gone Riyad Mahrez took a pass with that special Mahrez swizzle-touch, the touch, a snap of the underside of his boot, and simply veered in through Madrid’s entire left side. Had they never seen Mahrez play?. That is his channel. You can practically see his footprints. Mahrez looked up and curled in a training-ground pass for Kevin De Bruyne to head the ball down and into the corner.
And so it went on, breathlessly. Foden made the second goal. This was startlingly bad from Madrid, the defence swished aside like the paper saloon doors of a western set. Foden is a footballer who at moments like when sniping around Fede Valverde seems to have some basic advantage in his relationship with gravity, a greater snap in those delicate feet.
He fed De Bruyne, whose low cross in to Gabriel Jesus was transformed into a scalpel-like assist as David Alaba fell over. Jesus buried it. And moments later City eased this laughable imitation of Real Madrid open once again, De Bruyne, Jesus and Foden running from the halfway line three abreast like a 60-metre sprint heat. De Bruyne timed his pass out to Foden just right.
The touch was good enough, the finish pulled past the far post.
Still the brain reeled taking this in. With 33 minutes gone the team that should have been boxed up, packed off, trimmed and quartered was right back in this game thanks to Benzema, given just enough time and space to take Ferland Mendy’s pass and finish like a prince. Real Madrid are a terrible football team. Real Madrid are a brilliant football team. Real Madrid are a brittle gossamer thing. Real Madrid are as tough as iron. One of the main benefits of believing your own divine right of kings myth is this thing is never really over.
The second half bought even more mania, more uncontrolled surges of energy. Foden scored from Fernandino’s cross then set off on an apparently endless knee slide to the corner, a man who just seems to crave this tournament, to drink in these nights like a sweet hot gust of air.
Vinícius Júnior scored a wonderful, driving second for Madrid. And Madrid will be the happier going into the second leg, aware that this was a night when City, for all their incision, seemed to end up playing someone else’s game, high on that thrilling white light.