How do you mend a broken heart? Not literally, that is. If you’re Manchester City, your solution to a broken heart would probably be to spend £30m on hiring the 50 best heart surgeons in the world to defibrillate it for the next 10 years.
But emotionally speaking, the time-honoured way of getting over a recent trauma is to surround yourself with loved ones, throw yourself into your work and rediscover the simple pleasures in life, which in City’s case usually involves dishing out merciless spankings to bottom-half Premier League sides. Here it was the unfortunate Newcastle United who would be City’s boxercise class, their family‑sized tub of Häagen‑Dazs, their 3am booty call to a long-lost ex.
Of course the pall of Madrid hung over the afternoon. How could it not? It was less than 96 hours since their bone-chilling late defeat in the Champions League semi-final, and even as the goals rained in at the Etihad Stadium there was a strangely dolorous mood to the place, perhaps akin to the finger buffet at your grandmother’s funeral. Delicious, wholesome, but can you really fully enjoy a chicken balti pie when Nana is lying eight feet away in an open casket? The Newcastle fans chanted about City’s wasted Champions League chance, gleefully scratching away at that open wound. In truth, it probably didn’t help them.
There was an interesting turn of phrase in Pep Guardiola’s programme notes where he briefly reflected on the Real Madrid defeat before adding: “But now we are back here with our people.” It was evidence of the fort mentality he has been trying to generate since he arrived in Manchester – with mixed success, it has to be said. You realised now why he had spoken so openly about his devastation in his Friday press conference, why he had insisted City could live with this defeat, but never forget it. All afternoon you could see him waving his arms on the touchline like a hype man, trying to stir the crowd into a scalded frenzy.
But the Etihad Stadium crowd does not give its noise unconditionally. Partly this is because of the sizeable tourist contingent, a continuing problem at many big clubs. Mostly, though, it’s because crowds are at their best in the teeth of adversity and over the last few seasons you could probably count on your fingers the number of times this stadium has encountered genuine adversity. Instead, the default temperature of the Etihad Stadium drifts between three states: grumbling irritation, boisterous triumphalism and a kind of white noise – the noise of 600 completed passes at a 92% success rate, the noise of frictionless existence.
In the early stages, it was grumbling irritation that was holding sway. Aymeric Laporte and João Cancelo missed big chances. So did Chris Wood for Newcastle. Raheem Sterling settled any residual nerves with a simple opening goal. But Newcastle were still able to work the ball up the field with consummate ease, still able to win too many second balls in midfield, very often just a good pass away from cutting City open entirely.
Around half an hour in, though, something funny happened. Kevin De Bruyne looked up from his position in the left channel, made a brief set of calculations and played a gorgeous cross to Gabriel Jesus at the back post. Jesus couldn’t do anything with it, but De Bruyne’s sorcery instantly seemed to awaken something deep and elemental within the stadium. A reminder of what City are good at. A reminder of the power they still possess. Perhaps even a reminder of why they all do this.
This, as much as anything he can physically do with a football, is De Bruyne’s talent. For all their individual excellence City possess vanishingly few players with the ability to turn the mood of a game, to get a crowd on its feet, to change the weather.
Actually, that’s not quite true. Riyad Mahrez can do it. Phil Foden can do it. Jack Grealish at his best can certainly do it. The problem is that they so rarely get the latitude to do so: triple‑teamed by defenders, shackled to an intricate masterplan that essentially demands very fast ball retention.
De Bruyne, you feel, is almost unique in this respect: the player who more than anyone seems to be the emotional centre of this team. When he’s buzzing, City are buzzing. When he disappears, even if they’re winning, something feels cold and disconsolate about them.
It certainly does not feel coincidental that he failed to finish either of City’s last two Champions League exits: taken off after 72 flagging minutes in Madrid, knocked out by Antonio Rüdiger in the final against Chelsea last year. Each time City continued to compete, continued to generate chances. But something was missing: the thrill, the teeth, the implication that at any moment something might be conjured from nothing.
Crisis over, then? It always felt faintly ludicrous, this debate over whether a team about to win their fourth title in five years have somehow failed or fallen short. Likewise the insistence of many City fans that they remain somehow cursed by bad luck, trodden underfoot, the victims of some establishment conspiracy. For all the chagrin of midweek, they’ve just beaten Newcastle 5-0, they get to watch De Bruyne play every week and they’re about to win the Premier League. They’ll be fine for now.