Bernardo Silva’s unique talents lead Man City’s evisceration of Real Madrid
There was a player whose goals were designed to transform Manchester City into Champions League winners. It wasn’t Bernardo Silva. “Bernardo has never been a top scorer,” shrugged Pep Guardiola in March, after one of his favourite footballers had scored at the Etihad Stadium for the first time since August. He sounded utterly unworried. Silva, as he said then, “is unique”. He was aggressive presser, rhythmic passer, the man who could speed the game up or slow it down, the player he has used as everything from the most unconventional of left-backs to a false nine but who could be relied upon to make everyone else play better.
But then, after five goals in 51 games this season, came two in a quarter of an hour. Against Real Madrid. In a Champions League semi-final. Only Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski had scored twice against Real on this stage before, but they are more frequent scorers. Silva had delivered a winner of sorts against Carlo Ancelotti’s side in a similar occasion last year; but that was a first leg, and a 4-3 scoreline was overturned. Not this time. On City’s greatest European night, amid Real’s evisceration at the Etihad, he is the man who powered them to a final where they will be favourites. It can go wrong from here – the abiding lesson of Guardiola’s City in the Champions League is that it always can – but they will never have a better chance.
They may never have a better team, either. The half-time statistics – 13 shots to one, 72 per cent possession to 28 – were stark, the final scoreline – 4-0 – still more so. This was Real, after all, perennial kings of Europe. And if there was something studied and strategic about their slow start, the team playing the long game allowing City to attack, if the intention was they may grow into the game after the first 20 minutes, Silva instead scored in the 23rd, and then the 37th.
There was something symbolic in his opener, in the identities of the pair Kevin De Bruyne bisected with a wonderful pass. They were the men whose precision was at the heart of Real’s dominance of this competition over the past decade. There was perhaps a yard between Luka Modric and Toni Kroos but De Bruyne threaded the ball between pass masters. Suddenly, Silva was free in the penalty area. He steered his shot past Thibaut Courtois. The Belgian had done his best impression of Superman, with twin saves from Erling Haaland headers, but he was powerless to stop this.
Yet if the Norwegian has given City another dimension with his aerial ability, the unexpected element was that the man to score with a bullet header was Silva, all 5ft 8in of him. After Ilkay Gundogan’s shot was blocked by Eder Militao, the ball flew up obligingly for Silva. Good fortune or positional instinct? Whichever, the finish was unerring.
Rewind to March and Guardiola had suggested Silva’s contribution could not be judged by statistics. And yet a double meant that, of Silva’s last eight club goals, three had come against Real in Champions League semi-finals. He is the small man for the big stage. Guardiola, as he inferred, rarely judges players on their goal tallies. Perhaps he may deem that Silva’s real masterpiece in this season’s Champions League was his performance against Bayern Munich at the Etihad; it was an example of how to press three players at once which, in turn, shows the selflessness Guardiola loves.
There was further evidence of it. Subdued as Real were, Vinicius Junior offered the possibility he could provide the explosive to alter the game. Gundogan was booked for fouling the Brazilian as he threatened to burst clear. But sliding in on him from the other side, in a pincer movement, was Silva. A man for many a job was tasked with helping Kyle Walker patrol Vinicius. If Silva is a central midfielder press ganged into a variety of other roles, he may be the best defensive right winger around. Guardiola has tried many a formation in his time, from the inspired to the overly experimental, but City defended in a conventional 4-4-2 shape, freeing up De Bruyne to raid in support of Haaland.
The stamina of Silva and Jack Grealish, the flair players with the lungs of long-distance runners, permitted it. Go back to 2019, to what proved the title decider against Liverpool and Silva ran 13.7km in a tour de force. That willingness to keep on moving may yet bring his departure. There is an almost annual question if he will leave City; Barcelona seems to exert a siren call, though they invariably lack the funds to purchase a player of his class.
But Silva has enough of an attachment to City to name his dog after John Stones. The defender’s name echoed around the Etihad after Eder Militao’s own goal put City 3-0 up. Unless, of course, they were paying tribute to Silva’s dog. He could be one exhausted animal because, long after a semi-final was settled, the man still running was Silva. Real Madrid could not keep up with him; perhaps his four-legged friend cannot either.