Pep Guardiola’s team is not the first to experience that, of course. It is hard to tell whether it is something about the Bernabéu that does it, or whether it is the effect of feeling like you are living in a self-fulfilling prophecy, but this place has an unrivaled ability to unsettle even the greatest players, the smoothest teams. It scrambles the brain, jumbles the code, shorts the wiring.
It happened to P.S.G., too, when Gianluigi Donnarumma stumbled on the ball and Neymar and Lionel Messi disappeared from view. It happened, too, to Chelsea at the last — or what seemed, until very recently, like the last — with the European champion seemingly coasting to victory and then, without ever really noticing, staring down the barrel of defeat.
City, more than anyone, should have been immune. It is hard to imagine a team more versed in its ideas than Manchester City — though Liverpool would have a case — or a team better equipped to remain steadfast to its principles.
And yet City, too, froze. Even before everything fell apart, it had seemed inhibited, cagey, troubled by something, a reduced version of the team that might — with a little more ruthlessness and a touch more luck — have scored six or seven in the first leg last week. It had only found a little composure after Riyad Mahrez had scored, when the prospect of a place in the final against Liverpool at the end of May was so tantalizingly close.
That, ultimately, is the effect of Real Madrid’s belief. It believes it will win with such conviction that it proves contagious. That is the form its magic takes: it is a glamour, the power to dazzle an opponent, to convince it that the world should be as you see it, as you would want it to be.
It cannot be explained. It does not require specific ingredients, or any ingredients at all, really. There can be no noise, no hope, no spark and no time, and yet Real Madrid can still conjure it from the air, from the sky, from something deep within. It is something that happens, something that happens to Real Madrid, and to whoever has the misfortune to be standing in its way.