Remarkable Real Madrid always find a way to survive in the Champions League

Like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, the Spanish side somehow cannot be finished off

Manchester City had 60 per cent of the ball. They had 16 shots to Real Madrid's 11. They won on xG, taking a consensus of various algorithms, about 3.1 to 1.6. And yet they will go to the Bernabéu next week leading only 4-3 and, probably, with a grim sense of a familiar history being played out.

Madrid have won four Champions Leagues in the past decade. They have rarely, if ever, been the best side in the world in that period. In Cristiano Ronaldo's nine years at the club, they won only two La Liga titles. They couldn't produce consistently enough to dominate the league and yet, somehow, in the Champions League, in what had always been their tournament, they got results.

Sometimes it was down to rivals, often Atlético, but also at times City and Wolfsburg, freezing at key moments. Sometimes it was down to freakish errors from opponents: Pep Guardiola going gung-ho in 2014, Mehdi Benatia's daft foul on Lucas Vázquez in the 2018 quarter-final, then the Loris Karius aberration in the final. Often it was down to brilliant individuals – Ronaldo, Luka Modric, Gareth Bale, Sergio Ramos – doing something brilliant. They found a way.

At some point, Madrid will suffer a defeat from which there is no coming back. And yet, again, they have come through a battering having sustained relatively minimal damage.

This season, the tendency has been brought to new heights. This is madridismo in excelsis. Madrid have lost at home to Sheriff Tiraspol. They have been largely outplayed for long spells by Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea. They have repeatedly seemed on the brink of conceding the goal that would, at last, bring reality to bear. But, like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, they somehow cannot be finished off.

Thibaut Courtois keeps making remarkable saves. Luka Modric keeps playing remarkable passes. Opposing goalkeepers keep making remarkable mistakes. And, most of all, Karim Benzema keeps scoring remarkable goals, 14 of them now in the competition this season, nine in five knockout games.

This shouldn't work. The midfield is too old. Dani Carvajal looks shot. David Alaba seems an elderly 29. Whenever a team press them, they look rattled, like a dowager aunt flustered by the cheek of a gang of urchins she's unexpectedly encountered in the street. And then Benzema wraps his foot in front of his marker and guides a speculative cross in off the inside of the post with a volley of extraordinary deftness, precision and subtlety and the dynamic of the game has changed utterly.

At some point, surely, conviction in your ability to do something sensational will not be enough. At some point opponents will not miss the sort of chances that Riyad Mahrez did (twice) and Phil Foden did (twice) and Aymeric Laporte did. At some point, Madrid will suffer a defeat from which there is no coming back. And yet, again, they have come through a battering having sustained relatively minimal damage.

Rationalism

Guardiola is a rationalist. He studies and researches. He speaks of the need for control. There is a constituency that admires his football but finds it a little cold, too rarefied, too cerebral. He will look back over that first leg and know his team could have won by three or four. He will think of the shot Mahrez sliced into the side netting when he could have squared it. He will think of Foden’s sidefoot towards an otherwise empty net hitting Carvajal.

He will think of how Vinícius Júnior would never have outpaced Kyle Walker the way he did Fernandinho for the Madrid second and know his side should have better balance with the probable return of both first-choice full-backs for the second leg. He may reflect on how unfortunate it was that the ball struck Laporte's hand after glancing off his head for the penalty, and may be relieved that the away goals rule no longer exists.

He will know that if his side play to the same level in Madrid, they should reach the Champions League final. But what must lurk deep within is a knowledge that this kind of thing keeps happening to his side against big teams in big games. This is why he overthinks, because again and again over the past dozen years his sides have played brilliantly in big games, missed chances and then been undone by opponents who seem always more ruthless.

It happened for his Barcelona against Inter in 2010 and against Chelsea in 2012. It happened for his Bayern against Atlético in 2016. It happened for his City against Monaco in 2017 and against Tottenham in 2019. Again and again, his side have played stunning football for spells of key games and not won.

That’s why Guardiola doesn’t just send his side out to play in their usual way any more. History suggests being better is not enough. That’s why he expends so much effort in trying to find ways to prevent the opposition countering. That’s why he espouses a doctrine of control. It’s a conclusion to which experience draws a lot of managers, that in big games it’s safer to win the shot-count 5-0 than 20-5.

And yet football, this beautiful, cruel, infinitely complex phenomenon, replete with ironies, paradoxes and checks and balances, that continues heroically to defy the attempts of money to render it docile, cannot allow that: it has made it so that every attempt Guardiola makes to stave off risk rebounds upon him and brings about his downfall, the overthinking against Liverpool, Lyon and Chelsea.

Rationality says that City have a lead, that they're the better team, and that Madrid cannot keep pulling off the same trick in Europe. But with Guardiola in Europe, rationality rarely seems to have much to do with it.