Real Madrid’s Champions League magic finally runs out – so how do Los Blancos close the gap to Man City?

Real Madrid

Real Madrid’s Champions League magic finally runs out – so how do Los Blancos close the gap to Man City?

After Manchester City scored the first of their four goals at a raucous Etihad Stadium on Wednesday, Real Madrid were very clearly rattled. Vinicius Jr complained and gesticulated to manager Carlo Ancelotti, while Karim Benzema gathered the team in a huddle.

It was all ragged. Los Blancos, supposedly the semblance of calm in the Champions League, were showing the same signs of panic that a litany of Premier League teams that show up to City’s home ground do every week. And it only got worse from there. City would hit the Madrid net three more times before it was all done, the experienced Spanish side looking increasingly disparate with every goal.

For City, this was a proper arrival. The Cityzens, this nation-state-assisted unit, have flirted with Champions League glory for nearly 10 years now. They have come close on many occasions, of course, notably losing in the 2021 final after one of the great Pep Guardiola acts of psyching oneself out. With Inter set as their opponents in the decider, though, this looks more likely than any other to finally be their year.

For Madrid, though, this looked an awful lot like an end. Los Blancos will still be a major player in European football – clubs of this magnitude do not simply drop out of contention. But in Manchester, in this fashion, it looked like the last chapter of one of Europe’s great sides.

This mix of old and young was a near-identical XI to the one that beat Liverpool in the Champions League final in 2022. On Wednesday, the older members looked their age, while the juvenile group looked as inexperienced as their ages suggest. For players wearing any other shirt, being outclassed by Europe’s most terrifying team away from home is perhaps forgivable. But this is Real Madrid, a team that has won five of the last nine Champions Leagues. Semi-final appearances alone are disappointments.

This might be the last realistic chance of European glory for Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema and Dani Carvajal. All four are still excellent footballers, but showed on Wednesday that they cannot be counted on to win the biggest of games anymore. Poor showings are allowed in most cases, but you are not allowed to have those if you play for Real Madrid. And if you happen to do so, it better not be against Man City in the Champions League semi-final.

So, the changes will come. A manager might be sacked, and players will be moved on and brought in. Positions may be readjusted, tactics could even be tweaked. But how does this all come together, what moves can actually be made to revamp — not necessarily rebuild — a still-promising side?

Thanks for the memories, Carlo. Word is, there might be an opportunity in Rio…

Ancelotti insisted after Wednesday’s game that he is not going anywhere, and that he plans to see out his Madrid contract until it expires in 2024. He has earned the right to leave Santiago Bernabeu — or any job, for that matter — on his own terms. After all, this is a manager who has won every one of Europe’s top five leagues and four Champions Leagues over a glittering coaching career.

He has survived and adapted to different eras of coaching, taken on parts of different styles while proving that others can be remarkably easy to beat. In a sense, this Madrid side is his masterpiece. At their best, this is a perfectly harmonious group of 11 players who are patient out of possession and devastating in it. Ancelotti has made them tick by helping instil a mentality, and then letting them play.

But as Wednesday showed, that isn’t as reliable as it used to be. The signs that Ancelotti should perhaps move on have been there for a good chunk of this season. Madrid have stagnated in La Liga, and could end the season in third, 20 points behind Barcelona. This tie, then, was supposed to be the signature win he could point to from this strange campaign to keep himself in the job.

Instead, his team were battered. This isn’t necessarily Ancelotti’s fault — no one can stop City at the moment. Still, a change of coach might have to be the answer here. Identifying the right man for the job is difficult, and two top-tier managers have been snatched off the market in the last three months in Thomas Tuchel and Mauricio Pochettino.

But Ancelotti’s time in Madrid might be up. He could at least save face by taking the Brazil job, with the Selecao publicly pining for his hiring.

Madrid have relied on experience in the Champions League for a number of years now. And with every season that passes, a veteran gets moved on. Cristiano Ronaldo, Casemiro, Sergio Ramos and Marcelo have all seen Champions League glory and departed with various levels of dignity.

The last four of those serial winners are just about clinging on here. Kroos, Modric and Benzema have all signed or about to sign new one-year contracts, while Carvajal’s deal expires in 2024, too. And while they will undoubtedly be in the running again next year, it’s hard to see this group improving on this result — especially with a likely new slate of Champions League contenders potentially making runs in the competition next year.

The aforementioned quartet aren’t necessarily holding Real Madrid back, but perhaps they should be gracefully edged out of the door. Kroos’ defensive frailties were badly exposed at the Etihad, while Modric was uncharacteristically leggy and looked scared on the ball. Carvajal, meanwhile, was run ragged by a swaggering Jack Grealish. Benzema, for his part, hardly got a kick.