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Manchester City, Real Madrid in Champions League final, just one round early

Real Madrid players on the pitch during a training session at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester. Picture date: Tuesday May 16, 2023. (Photo by Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images)
Real Madrid players on the pitch during a training session Tuesday at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester. (Photo by Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images)

The kings of Europe rolled through the Plaza Sagrados Corazones last Tuesday toward a scene befitting a grand finale. Dani Carvajal whipped out his phone to capture it. Thibaut Courtois peered out his window, seemingly in awe. From their stoic team bus, Real Madrid’s protagonists saw a white-clad frenzy full of spinning scarves and billowing smoke. Thousands of fans had lined the Spanish capital’s streets to sing from their souls, and lend their support ahead of a clash at soccer’s summit.

It was a clash of opposites and equals, a contest between football's most successful club and its best team, a monumental match that, over 90 gripping minutes, delivered. Real Madrid and Manchester City dueled under a majestic spotlight. A record-breaking U.S. audience watched on TV. The entire sport seemed to halt for the occasion, for a game whose only real flaw was that it concluded indecisively.

And in doing so, it became a stage-setter, an appetizer for what could be a Champions League final for the ages — except, of course, for the fact that it is occurring one round early.

City and Real drew 1-1 last week in Madrid. They’ll meet again Wednesday in Manchester (3 p.m. ET, CBS/Univision/Paramount+). The victor will claim nothing, because the actual Champions League final remains a month away; this is merely the second leg of a semi.

But for City, it is the highest hurdle, the mystical barrier between a sky-blue machine and elusive acclaim.

For Real, it is the ultimate test of that mystique, a date with a reborn juggernaut built to topple el rey.

All of that, perhaps, sounds a bit hyperbolic, but City has spent 2023 validating every last ounce of hyperbole. It is unbeaten since Feb. 5, on the brink of a fifth Premier League title in six seasons, and atop every reasonable ranking of soccer’s most formidable squads. FiveThirtyEight estimates that the gulf between City and Real Madrid is wider than that between Madrid and Brighton and Hove Albion. Opta, meanwhile, says City is to Madrid what Madrid is to Feyenoord.

Those assessments seemed borderline farcical until a ball rolled last Tuesday at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. City, unfazed, seized the game with structure and stunning skill. They streamed forward and stayed forward, passing with precision, and pressing to pin back the reigning European champions. For half an hour, they were ambitious and ascending toward an opening goal — which is precisely when Real Madrid struck.

It’s when Real Madrid seemingly always strikes, when moments get large and Champions League hopes begin to fray. Los Blancos, as they’re known, have been aging and wobbling for several years now; but under Carlo Ancelotti, in must-win games on European nights, they have invariably risen. A season ago, they lost to Moldovans, and trailed PSG by two in the Round of 16; they trailed Chelsea with 15 minutes left in a wild quarterfinal; they trailed City at this very same semifinal stage by two with two minutes to go.

But they always recovered. In the final, they weathered a seething Liverpool storm and then pounced. Last Tuesday, they did yet again. With the entire Bernabéu on its heels, Eduardo Camavinga drove forward from his makeshift defensive position and picked out Vinicius Jr., who pinged a pile-driver into the top corner of the net.

They have won 14 European titles, twice as many as any other club. At halftime last week, they were suddenly surging toward a sixth triumph in 10 years. They began flowing like City had, piecing together dazzling combinations in and around the penalty area, and taking aim from long range. They were reprising the familiar narrative. City appeared helpless.

This, though, is a Manchester City team that blends quality with steel. In the 67th minute, it had one attack repelled, then a second, but Rodri charged down Real Madrid’s outlet. Jack Grealish and Ilkay Gundogan showed poise. And Kevin De Bruyne, the best midfielder of his generation, ripped a rocket that beat Courtois and leveled the score.

And so, seven days later, here we are, anticipating a match that overflows with intrigue. It will produce metaphorical comparisons to everything from boxing to chess. It could outdraw the Super Bowl globally. It should, eventually, crown a Champions League winner. City, even with four teams remaining, was a -150 favorite to lift the trophy. Real Madrid is Real Madrid.

First, of course, there was the other semifinal. Inter beat AC Milan 1-0 in Tuesday's second leg and 3-0 on aggregate. In Italy, and in European football lore, it was momentous and historic.

But in the shadow of City-Madrid, the final before the final, it felt like an afterthought.