MADRID — And so here we are again, wondering if Real Madrid can summon the energy and conjure the magic one last time. Carlo Ancelotti’s team looked beaten, dazed even, against Paris St.-Germain. That was two months ago. It seemed defeated, exhausted, against Chelsea. That was four weeks ago. It’s still standing. In the Champions League, at least, Real Madrid has the air of a team that has forgotten how to lose.
There is an element of self-fulfilling prophecy about Real Madrid in this competition. It wins because that’s what it does. It is infused with a sense of purpose, of absolute belief, as soon as it hears that music, as soon as it glimpses that cup.
It is that, and only that, which will give Manchester City a little pause thought. Last week’s 4-3 victory at the Etihad left Pep Guardiola and his players with twin sensations. It was clear, from the off, that the Premier League champion was smoother and slicker and altogether more coherent than Real Madrid, that it played a more sophisticated and more advanced form of soccer, that it possessed a clearer vision of what it is, what it wants to be. It was an evening, in that light, that showcased that City is now where it has spent a decade trying to go.
And yet, as the staff gathered the next morning, there was no little regret, and surprise, and general befuddlement that the semifinal tie was still in the balance, a feeling that Real Madrid is not an ordinary opponent, one that bows eventually to City’s obvious superiority, but that keeps on coming, unwilling to want, even if it knew how. That is the effect of the spell Real Madrid can cast: a vague sense of unease, a gnawing feeling in the pit of the stomach that these things only end one way. Manchester City has the chance, and the ability, to expose that as a fallacy tonight. But then others have tried, and failed, and here we are again.