Manchester City produced their best performance of the Pep Guardiola era to set up arguably the biggest game in their 129-year history.
Their second Champions League final will not only present them with the opportunity to lift the trophy for the first time, but they could also leave Istanbul having won a historic treble.
The three points they require to successfully defend the Premier League title will need to be won before then, and there is the small matter of a FA Cup final against Manchester United to negotiate as well.
Yet, if City perform anything like they did against 14-time European champions Real Madrid at the Etihad between now and 10 June, then they will have every confidence of finishing the job against Inter Milan.
This is the story of City’s greatest European victory to date, in the words of those who were there to witness it.
Guardiola: “We spoke just before we went to the pitch. We said, ‘Do you want to play against Inter or not? Do you want to play against Inter? Ask yourself. If you play 90 minutes thinking, I want to play against Inter, you will beat Madrid.’ They played in that spirit.”
Manuel Akanji: “He talked to us about winning the game. It’s not about doing anything crazy. It’s only one game that we need to win, we should play our game, we shouldn’t be scared.”
City’s fast start
Minute seven: Backed by a raucous home crowd, Erling Haaland runs onto a Kevin De Bruyne through ball, rounds Thibaut Courtois and pulls the ball back. There would normally be a City player there. Instead, there’s just an empty space — but it’s the first warning of the night for Madrid.
Bernardo Silva told ManCity.com: “From minute one, we put pressure on their defence, we pushed them back and created lots of chances. With our people, the energy that we felt, the momentum that we created helped a lot.”
Thibaut Courtois to Movistar: “They came out as we expected, pressing hard, pinning us back. We held on well, but if we don’t create chances, they feel even more comfortable.”
Minute 12: Jack Grealish lifts a cross onto Haaland’s head, setting up a header at point-blank range. Courtois does just enough to get in its way, while Eder Militao sweeps away the danger.
Akanji: “It was a little bit frustrating because we had good chances and he (Courtois) also made some incredible saves, but we kept going. We didn’t lose the belief that we can score goals here.”
Rio Ferdinand on BT: “They had their foot on their throat and it was like they were just stamping on their throat and keeping it there and positioned them where they wanted them around the pitch.”
Guardiola: “I had the feeling these last days that we had a mix of calm and tension to play these types of games. After 10 or 15 minutes, I had the feeling that all the pain we had in one season, one year, what happened last season — today it was there.”
Minute 21: Another Haaland header, another Courtois save; this one even more unlikely than the previous. Madrid are hanging on. It can’t last. It doesn’t.
Minute 23: Goal! Manchester City 1-0 Real Madrid (Bernardo Silva).
Bernardo controls Rodri’s lofted ball out to the right with his chest, gives it to John Stones and then — as Madrid’s players chase shadows trying to win back possession — he finds enough space in the box to receive it back, take a touch then turn past Courtois.
Michael Owen on BT: “He’s just a total footballer, isn’t he? Recognising where the space is, timing the runs. He’s slight, he’s not that quick, but his brain… that’s as good an individual performance as I’ve seen in a first half. He took the game away from them single-handedly.”
Guardiola: “Bernardo Silva is one of the best players I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Minute 32: For the first time all evening, Vinicius Junior slips in behind City’s defence, chasing a through ball by Rodrygo. He almost goes one-on-one with Ederson but Kyle Walker’s always on his tail. Then Walker’s right up alongside Vinicius Jr, nipping the ball off his toes and killing the attack.
Walker to TNT Sports, Brazil: “I have to study the opponents, I have to do my homework. The analysts provide me with great clips and I have them on my phone. Every time I get a minute, I’m watching the clips and see little movements that he (Vinicius Jr) does.
“He tried the little ‘overs’ where he lets it through his legs in the first half; if I hadn’t seen that by doing my homework maybe he would have caught me out on that. That’s what he did against Fernandinho last year and it ended up in a goal.”
He added to BT: “I believe in my pace, I believe that I’m quicker than him and that I can use my physical dominance. Nullify him and have they got a Plan B?”
Minute 35: Madrid’s best ‘Plan B’ is speculating from range. It almost pays off. Toni Kroos hits the crossbar from outside the box. It is the closest they will come to scoring all night.
Courtois to Movistar: “We didn’t do any damage. They scored in the 20th minute and, from then on, it was hard to come back. If Kroos’ crossbar goes in, it changes everything… Those little things may have happened last year, but not this year.”
Minute 37: Goal! Manchester City 2-0 Real Madrid (Bernardo Silva).
That short spell of absorbing pressure initially sees City play it safe once they win the ball back, but the visitors’ defending is asking to be punished. Grealish probes the penalty box, Ilkay Gundogan’s shot is blocked by Militao, but Courtois has been dragged out of position and Bernardo can guide a header into a largely empty net.
Bernardo: “I’m very good with my head, eh? I’m small, but I’m good with my head!”
Half-time: City have threatened to blow Real Madrid away, with only Courtois keeping the visitors in it at 2-0. Guardiola’s side had played fairly conservatively at the Bernabeu — but not here. Fans are already discussing whether this is their greatest performance.
Grealish to TV2, Norway: “We were much more aggressive with and without the ball, our forward players were more aggressive, me and Bernardo with the ball and the pressing. I didn’t think we let them breathe. We were after them all the time, but then we made tactical changes too which I think he (the manager) wants to keep to himself.”
Guardiola: “The difference between the first leg and the second is that over there we put one of the No 8s deeper and today we put him further forward.”
The second half starts: Guardiola is absolutely desperate for his team to keep hold of the ball.
49 minutes: An uncharacteristically loose pass by Luka Modric turns possession over to City on halfway, with acres of space to break into. De Bruyne attempts a driving counter-attack, runs into traffic, loses possession and turns to see his manager irate on the touchline.
Guardiola: “Pass the ball! Pass the ball!”
De Bruyne: “Shut up! Shut up!”
Minute 52: Guardiola is stretching his arms out as if he can somehow stretch them long enough to pull Grealish back and prevent him from running down the left wing, practically begging him not to go on the attack.
Walker to BT: “We knew it wasn’t over at 2-0… I think the second half we didn’t come out how we should have come out.”
Minute 57: Guardiola kneels down in his technical area for the first time on the night. He does this when the opposition is counter-attacking and he is especially nervous.
Minute 59: Guardiola is literally blowing kisses to his players after Grealish has the chance to run forward but he turns and passes back to Rodri, relieving pressure and allowing City to embark on a safe, steady spell of possession that takes the sting out of the game again.
Minute 60: Guardiola’s kneeling again.
Minute 61: And again.
Minute 67: And again.
Walker to TNT: “We let them come onto us a little bit and all of a sudden they could have got a goal, but we weathered the storm and I think that’s what good teams do.”
Guardiola: “People talk about Erling but what a year Rodri has had. I don’t know if there’s a midfielder better than him right now.”
City go three up
Minute 75: De Bruyne, running close to empty and after several foiled through balls, stands over a free kick wide on the left. Guardiola walks far outside his technical area to instruct the Belgian…
Minute 76: Goal! Manchester City 3-0 Real Madrid (Militao o.g.). Or is it?
Akanji: “No no no no no, it’s my goal, I touched it. I’m really happy to score the goal. I saw already on the free kick before that the space was pretty empty, so I stepped in there. The first one came low and the second one from Kevin came in perfect, I touched it a little bit with my head and it went to Militao and so I think when it’s towards the goal it should count as my goal. So I’m really happy to score my first goal (for City), especially in a game like this.”
Minute 84: De Bruyne is substituted off, he and Guardiola share a long embrace.
Thierry Henry on CBS: “I can’t say it because I have to keep that private, but from what he (De Bruyne) said to me, I have even more respect for how he played tonight and how he came and battled with his team.”
Minute 89: Haaland is substituted off and he thumps the City badge on his shirt in a surely pointed display of where his loyalties lie, against the team he is known to admire.
Wednesday was Norway’s constitutional day (their July 4), and Haaland had been educating his team-mates.
Grealish to TV2: “He explained it a little bit, he was showing me some videos of the parties back home. He didn’t score tonight but he’s one of these players who, even when he doesn’t score, he’s such a handful.”
Alvarez rounds it off
Minute 90+1: Goal! Manchester City 4-0 Real Madrid (Alvarez). That’s that.
Having dropped out of the side from Sunday’s win at Everton, two players who are currently having to put up with bit-part roles — Phil Foden and Julian Alvarez — combine for the fourth. Guardiola sees their contribution from the bench as a key reason for his side’s consistency.
Guardiola: “At Goodison Park in the Premier League with (rotated) players — Riyad (Mahrez), Ayme (Laporte), Phil, Julian — how they performed was amazing. They could say, ‘OK, I’m going to play that game and maybe not the game against Madrid second leg’, but they went there and everyone did it well. That is the reason why we are for many, many years who we are.”
Carlo Ancelotti: “We played against an opponent who deserved to win tonight because they played with more intensity and quality. In the first half, they built a game to reach the final. They were superior today and we were superior last year. This can happen to you in a Champions League semi-final.”
Ferdinand on BT: “It’s the way they got here. They’ve destroyed, battered and pulverised a giant of European football; a team with players who have won multiple Champions Leagues. And they look like they’ve done it at a canter.”
Several City players break off from their celebrations out on the Etihad pitch to interrupt live pitchside broadcasts, with CBS Sport’s Micah Richards proving the most popular.
Grealish on reaching a Champions League final: “It came up on my Snapchat, you know when it comes up ‘Memories’? It was four years ago today, I was sitting at home and I put, ‘Can’t wait for this, Kyle (Walker) versus Neymar, going to be crazy’.
“Unbelievable. I was just buzzing to be involved, to be in this moment. I don’t think a lot of teams would do that to Real Madrid but I swear, man, when we’re all together, when we’re just playing here, we just feel unstoppable.”
As Guardiola makes his way off the pitch, he spots Ferdinand, points to him and shouts, “I told you!”.
Ferdinand: “Pep texted me today saying, ‘Believe me, we’ll beat them’. The confidence to say that two or three hours before the game!”
Guardiola enters his post-match press conference and — having diplomatically claimed City were not out for revenge before last week’s first leg — proceeds to explain, at length, how this performance was powered by the “poison” of last season.
Guardiola: “It was really tough to lose the way we lost. In that moment, we have to swallow the poison, we have to swallow everything. Football and sport always give you another chance. When the draw was Madrid I said, ‘Yeah, I want it. I want it.’
“Today, it was there, everything: the energy we had last season, being criticised, we didn’t have character, didn’t have anything but we lost because it’s football. Today. it was there.”
Guardiola’s response to Grealish’s ‘unstoppable’ comment: “I don’t like that! Every team is stoppable if you do what you have to do. If they feel it, it’s nice — but football changes from one day to another. You have to be calm. I said to the players, ‘I would like to give you one day off but I don’t give one day off. Tomorrow yes, but the Premier League is there’.”
Ruben Dias to TV2: “The one I would say that makes him (Guardiola) different to the others is that he’s won everything but it’s like he hasn’t won anything. That hunger. Every new season he starts all over again, that’s his biggest quality.”
Guardiola on where this performance ranks: “The highest, considering the opponent.”
Akanji: “For City, for sure (it’s the best performance I’ve been part of). I’ve had some good games with Switzerland too — when we beat France at the Euros and were the underdog. Today we were kind of on the same level but the way we played… it’s up there.”
Guardiola on the treble: “Let me win the first two!
“Of course, we are there. Now the players can think about it, can visualise it. It’s normal. People talk about winning everything, they’ve had that feeling. It’s normal. We’re three games away, one each in each competition. We can do it.”
(Top photo: Mateo Villalba/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)