It was quite a turnaround all round. Against the opposition that mean the most to Guardiola, and the club most associated with the European Cup, in a situation that seemed to sum up so much of what has gone wrong in this competition for the Catalan, he may well have produced a victory that means the most.
That’s how significant this 2-1 comeback against Real Madrid felt. It was a night of realisation, and some reckoning. This was the first time Madrid had failed to win – let alone lost – a Champions League knockout first leg since 2013. It also felt like Guardiola’s first big away win in Europe since, well, his last one here in 2011.
Will that be the prelude to something as great? This did have the feel of a significant night precisely because of the turnaround. The feel of that mental block being broken was meanwhile made all the starker by the fact it was Madrid that went into meltdown, especially with Sergio Ramos’ late red card.
City, by contrast, displayed supreme resilience through a series of setbacks. There was first of all the unfortunate Aymeric Laporte injury. There was then even more anxiety at the back, as illustrated by the error that led to Isco’s opening goal. Most of all, though, there was the way this seemed to be setting up the same old story: a questionable Guardiola approach needlessly complicating an away game. City played through all of that, to just play through Madrid.
The peerless De Bruyne, of course, was central to that. It did make a difference, however, that he was actually moved to the centre. It was in that sense as if this game represented a realisation for Guardiola’s side as a whole. They realised they were just better than this pedestrian Madrid, who seem so lacking in any kind of greater idea.
This is compounded by the fact Zidane himself doesn’t think too much about the opposition. Those close to the Real Madrid dressing room say it usually only amounts to “15 minutes” ahead of big games. In other words, he doesn’t go into anything like the detail Guardiola does. Madrid generally just trust themselves regardless of the opposition.
That made Guardiola’s usual attempt to quadruple or quintuple bluff the opposition all the more curious. You can’t play poker against someone playing solitaire. This opposition just aren’t looking at it like you. And, for much of the first half, that meant City didn’t really look like City. They were barely on the ball, ceding up to 70 per cent of possession to Madrid. When they had it, Bernardo Silva and De Bruyne were being deployed in curious false-nine positions.
The whole set-up had the effect of slowing the game down, but they weren’t alone in that. Madrid’s big games this season have all been low scoring, never going above a goal. They don’t have the same firepower any more, especially with Eden Hazard out.
It does feel telling that a previous member of the supporting cast, in Karim Benzema, is now the main event and main scoring threat. His 30th-minute header was parried by Ederson, with Vinicius Junior fluffing the follow-up. They were there to be got at. It just took a while for City to get this.
It was often as if City needed to bring it back to basics a bit, and just look to play through Madrid more. It was thereby no coincidence they looked so much better when De Bruyne decided to drop deeper and drive through the middle. It was the source of City’s best moves.
Alongside him, Riyad Mahrez was having the most Riyad Mahrez of games, often brilliant and frustrating in the same passage of control. He took Ferland Mendy out of the game with one audacious twist, only to then shoot wide with the feeblest of efforts.
If that was typical Mahrez, it was also a fitting prelude to typical City 2019-20. Their best spell was the set-up for one of their worst moments, and a Madrid goal. Nicolas Otamendi lost it, Kyle Walker tried to take too much out of it, and Vinicius just took it off him to play in Isco.
It was a horror show, but also appeared an inevitable progression of the anxiety that was gripping that backline without Laporte. The die had been cast in another way, though. City had realised they were the better side. They went back to a more natural approach, and naturally began to boss the game.
De Bruyne did that more than anyone. He set up Gabriel Jesus’ equaliser, before scoring the penalty that gives City such an advantage. It was just reward. They had been the much better team. It just took them a while to realise that.