“Why is it so difficult to win the Champions League?”

The question posed to Pep Guardiola, and one which untold mountains of money have been spent trying to overcome. His answer, instant and with a pained chuckle, reduced European club football’s greatest challenge to the simplest terms: “Because Real Madrid is always there.”

That was back in October last year, five months on from his Manchester City team collapsing so spectacularly in the Bernabeu, and maybe just enough time for the Spaniard’s head to cease spinning at the absurdity of what befell them that night.

A two-goal advantage with little over 15 minutes of the tie remaining was not enough overcome the fact that Real were still “there”. Even when Ferland Mendy cleared the ball against Phil Foden on his own goal line, it conspired to stay out of the net and Real remained “there”.

Two crosses into the City box later and they themselves were suddenly gone. The scoresheet shows that Karim Benzema scored the winner in extra-time but, really, Guardiola’s side shouldn’t have bothered coming back out, they were already finished.

It was as though the weight of Real’s long and illustrious history in this competition came suddenly crashing down on City with such force that they lost all sense of where they were and what they were doing. All they had to do was keep it tight for a few minutes, yet somehow a pair of hopeful crosses were enough to induce complete meltdown.

Is there any other club which could have inflicted this upon them in that way, in that moment? When Guardiola said they were “always there”, he was alluding to more than the fact that they are ever-present in the competition, that they consistently possess one of the strongest squads, one of the best managers.

There is just something about Real Madrid and the Champions League.

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Their complete continental domination in the mid-20th century bred an obsession with that big-eared trophy, so much so that their pursuit of a 10th title over several years was even anointed with its own moniker in ‘La Decima’. Since removing that millstone from around their neck, Real have made Europe’s top table their personal playground over the past decade.

And it is a place City and Guardiola must remove them from if the Abu-Dhabi billions – spent legitimately or otherwise – are to yield the ultimate prize.

It promises to be an utterly fascinating duel.

The jibe aimed at Guardiola is that he has a tendency, or an unshakeable urge, to overthink his way into getting his team eliminated. It may be a tad exaggerated, although he did confess a “monumental f**k-up” on his part led to his Bayern Munich team losing to – of course – Real Madrid in 2014, and his decision to set up City so conservatively against massive underdogs Lyon in 2020’s one-legged quarter-final was an all-time bad decision.

In fairness, Guardiola is not the only manager to suffer Real-induced tactical delirium. Chasing a 2-0 first-leg deficit, Chelsea’s interim manager Frank Lampard deployed defensive midfielder N’Golo Kante at number 10 for no discernible reason other than to confuse his opponent into submission. The extremely unconfirmed rumour is Lampard believed it was working until his coaching staff informed him that Carlo Ancelotti’s eyebrow is ‘always like that’.

The compulsion to ‘just do something’ against Real is understandable, though. They often do not make a great deal of sense and seem to revel in defying elements of modern football’s perceived wisdom.

Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, as magnificently talented as they are in midfield, have a combined age of 70 in an era where the number of sprints players complete is measured with decimal points.

The team prone to bouts of chaos where you are left wondering ‘what’s the plan here, lads?’, yet it is so often countered by that proclivity for unlikely comebacks: see City last season or going haplessly 2-0 down at Anfield this year, only to win 5-2.

In winning the tournament last year, they had a lower expected goals than their opponent in every knockout round tie. I have also read suggestions in the past that Ancelotti does not have a ‘style of play’.

You do not hear much waffle about ‘philosophy’ and ‘the project’. In the Champions League, their philosophy is winning, and they are quite good at it.

What that midfield of Kroos and Modric may lack in youthful exuberance is more than compensated for by hyper-intelligence and supreme technical ability. Very rarely do you see either make a poor decision.

In various ways, there is an ice-cold calculatedness across every position. They are a side who seem to enjoy projecting the illusion they are not in control. They can play with themselves at times, shifting to a higher gear with ruthless efficiency, seemingly when they feel like it. Celtic were made brutally of this back in September in what was probably the most ‘big dog’ performance I’ve ever seen in the flesh; Ange Postecoglou’s side were largely very good, and threw everything they had at Real until they took a collective look at the watch and decided it was time to take care of business.

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They are not invincible, of course, and a poor La Liga campaign has demonstrated this. But something changes when they enter the Champions League arena.

Legendary president Santiago Bernabeu helped found the original European Cup way back when, but that was not what future incumbent Ramon Calderon meant decades later when he said: ‘this is our competition’. It is something far more intangible than being part of the few who drew up the first blueprint.

The Real players compete on this front as though they utterly believe it belongs to them, and plenty opponents approach them like they believe it, too.

That is the task facing Pep Guardiola and Manchester City now – overcoming Modric and the mythology. Do so, and it might just be their year to establish a legend of their own.