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Manchester City deliver masterpiece 7 years in the making

Matt McNulty - Manchester City / Manchester City FC / Getty

Vinicius Junior stood with his arms outstretched, seemingly pleading for instructions from his coach.

Carlo Ancelotti — his hands on his hips — didn’t know what to say.

Only 23 minutes had been played and Real Madrid was getting overwhelmed and humiliated by Manchester City in the semifinals of the Champions League — a competition the Spanish club has almost made its own.

And already Vinicius, one of the world’s best players, and Ancelotti, the European Cup's most decorated coach, were helpless.

That's how good City was on a night when Pep Guardiola and his players produced a masterpiece nearly seven years in the making.

"We feel unstoppable," City winger Jack Grealish said after his team's 4-0 win, which secured a place in the Champions League final against Inter Milan in Istanbul on June 10.

Madrid would vouch for that.

City has been taking soccer to new heights over the last few months and its performance against Madrid was the pinnacle. In the first half especially, it was close to perfection.

Madrid had only 10 touches in its attacking third before halftime and only 28% of possession. The shot count was 13-1. If it wasn't for two point-blank saves by Thibaut Courtois and a couple of errant shots, City could have been up 4-0 — or more.

Former Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand, working as an analyst for British broadcaster BT Sport, said he received a text message from City manager Pep Guardiola a few hours before the match.

"Believe me, we'll beat them," were Guardiola's words, Ferdinand said. As he left the field after the game, Guardiola pointed to Ferdinand and shouted: "I told you, I told you."

City didn't just beat Madrid. It was an absolute destruction, a cleansing of the pain of last season's semifinals when City conceded second-leg goals in the final seconds at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium to be taken to extra time and eventually lose.

It drove City to surely its best display in the seven seasons under Guardiola.

"The highest, considering the opponent," he said, when asked to rank the performance.

It had been coming.

On its 23-match unbeaten run since a 1-0 loss to Tottenham on Feb. 5, City has beaten Liverpool, Arsenal, Bayern Munich and now Real Madrid by at least a three-goal margin. Throw in a 7-0 hammering of Leipzig and a 3-1 win at Arsenal — a result in February that turned the Premier League title race — and City is simply on another level.

Guardiola is even acknowledging that the treble — Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League — is possible. It is right in front of them. One more win in each competition and City matches the achievement of Manchester United in 1999.

"We can do it," Guardiola said.

Achieving these levels of excellence inevitably invites questions about how City got here. It's the result of 15 years of heavy spending on players, not to mention coaches like Guardiola, and a ruthlessly implemented wider strategy by its Abu Dhabi ownership.

Some call it sportswashing and shrug at City's feats. That the club is facing more than 100 charges by the Premier League, for allegedly breaching financial rules from 2009-18 and since then failing to cooperate with an investigation, adds to the murkiness and makes some soccer fans question whether City and other state-owned teams, like Paris Saint-Germain (Qatar) and Newcastle (Saudi Arabia), are changing soccer for the worse.

Yet while PSG is stumbling along despite its wealth — the French club is no closer to winning the Champions League — and Newcastle has yet to truly flaunt its riches since the Saudi-led 2021 takeover, City has a well-executed strategy that has seen the team become the dominant force in England and now Europe.

City's players are likely to clinch a third straight Premier League title, and a seventh in 12 years, this weekend for Part 1 of the treble bid. Then comes the FA Cup final against Manchester United on June 3, before the Champions League final the following weekend.

On current form, there's no stopping them.


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