The orders were clear for Erling Haaland. Haaland was not paying attention as his Manchester City colleagues patiently worked the ball from the centre circle to Ederson, the goalkeeper. And he was prepared for it. Ederson’s first pitch into the night sky was rather primitive for a Pep Guardiola-coached squad.
The ball reached the peak of its parabola and began its descent when Haaland was not looking. He relocated to the area where it was expected to make impact. He picked up some momentum and moved forward. David Alaba, a defender for Real Madrid, met the ball, sending it flying back into the air with a header, but then Haaland slid in from behind and collided with him. Not in a hazardous or irresponsible manner, but with just 40 seconds gone by, it was undeniably foreboding.
Since this is Guardiola, we can only assume that everything went according to plan, that he spent a lot of time in practise in preparation for Tuesday’s game. Haaland’s crash test dummy would have been a stand-in from the cast. The Norwegian striker Haaland would have received instruction on proper clattering form. Do not charge headfirst into him, Erling; instead, lead with your shoulder.
However, the responsibility for this may have been assigned elsewhere. German defender Antonio Rüdiger stood behind Alaba, watching the initial conflict develop. The suspension of Eder Milito had necessitated his inclusion in Real’s starting lineup, but he is not the kind to shrink from a challenge.
Aside from that, however, Rüdiger and Haaland essentially engaged in an arm wrestling. Of course, it’s not to say that each player is all muscle. Because of the nature of his work, Rüdiger’s accomplishments are frequently obscured from the view of others who lack his prescient abilities. Haaland, despite his massive size, is capable of making it impossible to pin down his exact location, right up to the moment he materialises and peels off an opponent’s shoulder.
However, on this particular instance, both players gave in to what might be called their more macho tendencies. They fought for an hour and a half, each striving to establish nothing more than pure physical control over the other, and both enjoying the atavistic pleasure of it.
When Haaland dove for the ball, Rüdiger threw him to the ground. Rüdiger was seen here doing an impression of Jack Nicholson from “The Shining” by putting his head in the crook of Haaland’s elbow, therefore expressing his agreement to be placed in a headlock and smiling knowingly at the camera.
Haaland did not score, a rarity this season, and in truth had only a couple of sights of goal; however, his presence was crucial in creating the space who led to De Bruyne’s equaliser for City, a strike that will make Guardiola’s team the slight favourite when hostilities are resumed next week in England.
And I doubt either coach will be very happy about it. Despite their ideological differences, it was clear that both sides came into this game with an understanding of the other’s capabilities and skills. That realisation may have been the most important takeaway from their semifinal matchup from the previous year: Madrid knows how good City can be, and City knows it can be as good as it wants and still lose to Madrid.
Real’s passivity on home turf tested the patience of the Bernabéu faithful; visitors seldom have the nerve to maintain the ball for extended stretches of time. Midway through the first half, the crowd’s dignity was insulted by City’s passing, and the whistling that had accompanied the game so far gave way to boos.
That was a price Ancelotti was willing to pay, however. From a tactical and strategic one, it made more sense for Real to sit back, wait, and select its moments rather than rush things. A few minutes later, his strategy paid off when Eduardo Camavinga—playing the fullback/midfielder hybrid position that is all the rage these days—spotted a hole, pried it open with a nifty piece of footwork, and then found Vincius Jnior with just enough space to zing a shot past Ederson.
City, despite being down a goal, did not feel the need to take a more confident, offensive stance. The unquenchable desire for possession that characterises Guardiola’s system is not only an attacking strategy; it also has a defensive function. Perhaps more than he’d like to admit, he follows his former opponent José Mourinho’s philosophy that “whoever has the ball, has fear.”
When Guardiola’s team is dominant, the other side has little chance of scoring. When the ball is swishing hypnotically between his guys, he knows he’s in good hands. That’s especially crucial against Madrid, a squad whose strength is its ability to score at any time and almost without notice.
It was the kind of game in which both sets of coaches appeared to agree the opposition’s identity shouldn’t be allowed to shine through. So, they used Haaland, Europe’s deadliest striker, a guy who, in his first season in England, has sometimes seemed like an unstoppable force of nature, as a battering ram.
Both Guardiola and Ancelotti may take confidence in the fact that their strategy was successful and the game is still in reach. However, they will both be aware that eventually, it won’t be enough to just halt the resistance; instead, one of them will have to be really themselves in order to prevail.