Champions League

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Madrid shows City that history matters

FOX Soccer's crew analyze Real Madrid's comeback win over Manchester City.
FOX Soccer's crew analyze Real Madrid's comeback win over Manchester City.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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Ahead of Real Madrid’s spectacular 3-2 win over Manchester City on Tuesday afternoon’s opening to the 2012-13 Champions League, manager Jose Mourinho proclaimed that spend-happy City could never buy Real’s history.

If the statement was merely one of Mourinho’s signature verbal jabs ahead of a big game – and a little rich coming from a man who made his name with Chelsea, which bought its success as surely as City did, and manages the most expensively-assembled squad in the world – it nevertheless spoke to a fundamental truth about this matchup, whether intentional or not.

This was Real’s 348th game in elite European club competition. It was City’s ninth. And it showed.

Domestic domination doesn’t translate to the continent. Competing in Europe is a different beast to winning in your own league on weekends. There are no opponents that crawl into their shells at the mere sight of your might, only teams as accustomed to commanding games are you are. It takes a fluency in the high-pressure, up-tempo language of European football and a squad that is deeply familiar with both their peers and the demands placed on them collectively. A squad that is at the same time perfectionistic and cynical that sports enough players whose lungs are comfortable in the rarefied atmosphere. Real and its record nine European titles knows this. City, which didn’t survive the group phase last year, doesn’t yet.

“This for me is Real Madrid,” said Mourinho after the game. “I am nobody in the story of Real Madrid, I am not here long and have done very little, but as a coach I have the right to say that the Madridismo should enjoy this. We have re-found the DNA we had last season and won a game which was important to win. It is an important step towards qualifying from a difficult group.”

Neither team entered the game with the benefit of having won last weekend. City was lucky to have tied 1-1 at Stoke. Real lost to Sevilla 1-0 and already trails a perfect Barcelona by eight points after four games. Following Real’s second league loss of the year, Mourinho had publicly berated several unnamed players for their complacency and lack of focus.

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“In Sevilla, we had players who did not run for 90 minutes, who did not win 50/50 balls or second balls,” said Mourinho. “Few reached the end of the game tired. I think today it was exactly the opposite, exactly the opposite – a solid, committed, compact team.”

Yet Madrid, because it knows how to handle concurrent but separate campaigns, took none of this into its Champions League opener. Los Blancos gridlocked the center of the field, where City is at its best, by playing three holding midfielders – Michael Essien, Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso – very high, pinning back the Citizens and funneling the game to the wings, where Real is at its best.

Tactically, City manager Roberto Mancini had no other answer but to replace the injured Samir Nasri after the half hour with the much more defensive Aleksandar Kolarov. City, which is invariably the aggressor in its domestic games, couldn’t find the space or possession to operate in the Bernabeu, suffocated by a more technical and athletic side.

“It is strange,” said Mancini. “We went too deep and let the opponent play easily until the edge of the box. We should have continued to play high as we were doing in the second half."

Real tapped into a rich vein of chances, pinging through City’s sturdy defense, but was either wasteful or thwarted by a sharp Joe Hart.

Then, in the 68th minute, because soccer is a funny game like that, City’s Yaya Touré was sprung from the midfield and knocked the ball square for Edin Dzeko, who coolly slipped it under the wrong-footed Iker Casillas. City had gone ahead on its first chance of the game.

The contest opened up considerably. But Real showed that it is both adept at chipping away at a deficit and, later in the night, embalming a lead. City showed that it is not.

Having gone close several times before, Marcelo curled a splendid, slightly-deflected shot past Hart to equalize in the 76th. Dzeko neglected to re-take the lead for City in the 77th from a foot or two from goal. So Kolarov did it for him in the 85th, whipping a free kick into the box that snuck in at the far post, untouched by the jumble of legs it had traveled past.

But Real kept pushing forward in numbers and overwhelmed a City team that didn’t have the experience or wherewithal to lock up the passing lanes – or indeed the game. Karim Benzema played a simple defense-splitting diagonal ball at the edge of the box, took a touch, turned and smacked his shot into Hart’s low, near corner to make it 2-2.

Rising on adrenaline, Real completed its second comeback when an otherwise frustrated and "sad" Cristiano Ronaldo faked out Pablo Zabaleta and took a shot with immense top-spin that sank under Hart’s hand and into the net.

Mourinho celebrated with a knee-slide that will doubtless produce countless GIFs around the web. And then, ever the sportsman, he scurried into the tunnel without shaking Mancini’s hand after the final whistle bookended a wondrous game.

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“The celebration does not matter, what matters is the match, the way people that love football around the world enjoyed it for sure,” Mourinho said. “As a coach, more important than winning was to be proud of my team, whatever the result.”

Real had history on their side – he’d proved his point. And that’s all Mourinho ever seems to care about.

“We cannot continue to talk about experience,” said Mancini in response. “We have good players who play for their national teams, and have played a lot of games. We should be disappointed because we lost. As I said we can lose here, it can happen against Real Madrid. We should show more courage.”

“In the next 10 years City will be a top team like Real,” Mancini told the English press before the game in response to Mourinho’s dig.

Yes, in 10 years perhaps.

But not yet.

Information from Dermot Corrigan was used in this report.

Amy Lawrence is a contributing writer for FOXSoccer.com who has been writing about the game since USA `94, covering the Premier League, Champions League, European leagues and international soccer.

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