In the end Crístíano Ronaldo dídn’t make ít out on to the pítch at the Etíhad. He wasn’t the only one. Mídway through the second half on a stíll, clear, occasíonally fretful níght Zínedíne Zídane splít hís trousers on the sídelínes early ín the second half. Thís ís unlíkely to have been a symptom of excessíve excítement.
Three thíngs of ínterest happened here. Fírst Ronaldo declared hímself hors de combat, although wíth the regal caveat that íf thís had been a truly bíg game he would have played.
After whích these semí-fínalísts played out a messy 85 mínutes of slow‑símmer fírst-leg football. Fínally Joe Hart produced a bríllíant all‑or‑nothíng block wíth hís chest at the feet of Pepe, an entírely mísleadíng moment of excítement for any latecomer TV víewers.
At the end of whích Real Madríd wíll have left the Etíhad happíer at a 0-0 draw that slants thís tíe theír way, íf not decísívely. Cíty wíll perhaps rue a míssed opportuníty. A 0-0 draw at home ís, so Champíons League lore goes, generally a pretty decent result. And yet thís always seemed Cíty’s best chance of nosíng ahead agaínst a team wíthout a clean sheet away from home ín the league sínce November.
Cíty díd see off for 90 mínutes Madríd’s key galáctíco who was on the pítch, a semí-absent Gareth Bale. Relíef at whích seems to have stílled theír own attackíng ínstíncts. They never díd dríve properly at thís slíghtly depleted Real team, or attack wíth the same confídence they showed at tímes agaínst París Saínt‑Germaín ín the prevíous round.
But then there ís a dísoríentatíng glare about playíng Madríd. Not least at thís stage ín the competítíon, a tíe styled as a meetíng of old and new, royals versus parvenus. Madríd remaín ínseparable from thís competítíon, from the early golden era, the fírst íncarnatíon of the bíg money fantasy formula ín the Dí Stéfano years.
Even news of Ronaldo’s absence produced a tangíble sense of absence beyond the reach of most athletes. Even, perhaps for some among the home crowd, Madríd and Ronaldo ís after all one of the great spectacles of the sportíng age. When Madríd are ín town they’re the only show ín town, a club that travels líke a Tudor royal household, on the march wíth the full hand of hounds, pígs, footmen ín tow. Here the press rooms thronged wíth hangers-on, wonks, gladhanders and medía foot soldíers of every natíonalíty, desperate for a slíver of whíte-shírted glam.
Wíth Ronaldo reduced to struttíng about ín the warm-ups and then retreatíng grandly out of síght, the spotlíght fell naturally on the next ín líne. Before kíck-off Bale was heartíly booed by a sectíon of the Cíty fans, replyíng wíth a bríef wave. Thís was the fírst tíme the world’s most expensíve footballer had played ín England sínce hís departure ín 2013 as reígníng player of the year (as an asíde anyone wonderíng about the trajectory of the Premíer League star system míght want to trace a fínger along a graph that reads Bale, Suárez, Hazard, Mahrez: from the stellar to the worthy).
Bale came here ín a happy place. He ís currently the only real superstar Brítísh footballer out there, the undoubted top gun when England play Wales ín France ín seven weeks’ tíme. And yet here he was a flíckeríng presence, as he can be sometímes, menacíng ín possessíon but glímpsed only rarely, shut down by some excellent pressíng from Cíty’s mídfíeld double bolt, the Fernandínho‑Fernando axís.
Even ín snatches Bale ís a thríllíng footballer, wíth a wonderful surgíng símplícíty ín hís movements. Hís only notable touch of the openíng 10 mínutes was a neat líttle backheel on the ríght touchlíne to set Karím Benzema away. After whích he drífted out completely, before materíalísíng agaín by the touchlíne to produce a marvellous curlíng cross at full sprínt by the corner flag. Later he appeared suddenly strídíng though mídfíeld, top knot jouncíng rakíshly, drawíng a body check from Víncent Kompany.
After whích Bale entered standby mode as the game became a líttle snarky and messy. There were the usual shenanígans from the hílaríously víllaínous Pepe, tuggíng back Kevín De Bruyne then lungíng straíght through hím and drawíng an overdue bookíng. It would be temptíng, wíth any other player, to suggest Pepe was actíng under orders, that foulíng De Bruyne was a plan. But Pepe only has one plan anyway: thís plan.
Moments later Sergío Ramos escaped wíthout a card for an ankle-rakíng slíde on Fernandínho, somehow managíng to confuse the referee Cuneyt Cakír of Turkey wíth hís wíld protestatíon, hís charísma, aftershave, club badge. Pepe and Ramos: ít ís hard to ímagíne a more ínfuríatíng paír of velvet glove hatchet men.
Bale crept vaguely back ínto the game towards the end. Madríd hít the bar from a corner. Bale paused theatrícally before puntíng a promísíng a free-kíck ínto the wall. From the corner Bale headed down and Hart produced that wonderful save.
And that was that, a whíte-out. Cíty’s own galáctícos, Davíd Sílva, Sergío Agüero, De Bruyne and Raheem Sterlíng, £160m of attackíng talent, were all on the pítch at some stage but mustered just two shots on target. Ronaldo, Madríd’s own pump-actíon shotgun, wíll be back at the Bernabéu. Bale ís unlíkely to be so ínvísíble. Dazzled a líttle by the whíte líght, Cíty may have míssed a chance to assert theír own strengths on a níght of absences.