We have seen what a world without Cristiano Ronaldo looks like and it is hideous.
He had failed an apparent fitness test – whatever that may be, exactly … is it an oral or a written exam? – and watched the game from the sidelines, occasionally looking at images of himself on his phone. The world was worse for one its premier narcissists not being out of action.
Because in his absence, the action on the field was, for the most part, lamentably dull. Both teams were underwhelming. The continuation of City’s continental Cinderella run was not looking so magical, and Real’s rejuvenation under Zidane seemed like it had hit a snag.
Until Real Madrid finally began asserting itself late on, the game was shapeless and uninteresting. The first half produced just a shot apiece. But Kevin De Bruyne’s attempt for City was blocked well outside the box and Gareth Bale’s at the other end took a deflection and looped harmlessly into Joe Hart’s arms.
The dearth of initiative and creativity wasn’t helped any by City’s David Silva making a clumsy tackle on Bale, getting a yellow and having to leave the game with an injury in the first half.
That evened the score in the referee’s book, by the way, after Pepe had made a reckless and incomprehensible challenge on De Bruyne earlier on.
At halftime, the feckless Karim Benzema came off for Real, another of its three hobbled forwards in its vaunted BBC front line leaving the fray – with only Bale fit enough to make any kind of impact.
Sergio Aguero finally gave a sign of life in the first minute of the second half, when the strong Fernandinho won the ball and set him up. But the Argentine striker smashed his shot just high. Bale then shouted for a penalty at the other end, but his case was weak.
If their play wasn’t terribly convincing or attractive, Real gradually ratcheted up the pressure in the second half. Sergio Ramos put his towering header right at Hart on a corner. And then Jese’s arcing header dinked off the top of the bar. Hart, meanwhile, made two crucial kick saves late on against Casemiro and Pepe.
De Bruyne’s injury-time free kick was tipped over by Keylor Navas. And that was only fair. Because if anybody deserved to take a lead away from this wretched leg, it was Real. City, who have never been this far into the tournament, did avoid conceding an away goal, and that was the biggest prize that would be handed out on the night.
“Nil-nil is a good result,” City captain Vincent Kompany admitted after the game. “It’s hard to keep a clean sheet against such a good attacking team.”
“We’ve set it up for a good old fashioned rumble in the Bernabeu,” Hart added.
Which brings us to the biggest moment of the game: Zidane split his pants crouching – as he did in the quarterfinals, too. This was probably the most exciting thing to happen all night.
When soccer’s biggest tournaments get to their final stages, and the stakes become stratospheric, one of two things tends to happen: either each team goes for broke and try to outslug one another, or they both clam up and try to avoid mistakes. It’s a sort of Game Theory.
On Tuesday, both sides defected in their equivalent of what economists call the “prisoner’s dilemma,” opting for a less optimal outcome to avoid the risk of faring even worse. In other words, they avoided risk and provided an unwatchable non-spectacle.
And so the biggest talking point from a Champions League semifinal game was the failure of the pant seam of a man along the sidelines.