Pep Guardiola is still a rebel with a cause: Neil Humphreys
Man City manager proves a point against Real with mad tactics
In tactical terms, Manchester City's victory felt like a defiant manager telling his critics where to go.
This one was for Uefa, for his detractors and maybe even for himself.
To Pep Guardiola with love from Pep Guardiola, here's a beautiful reminder of what that anarchic streak can still accomplish.
It's never going to be enough to take down Uefa's unbending bureaucrats, but it was enough to embarrass European football's traditional aristocrats.
For Guardiola, the snatch-and-grab 2-1 victory within the bowels of the imperious Bernabeu was fitting. Real Madrid represent the status quo unwilling to let City sit at the top table.
City breached Uefa's Financial Fair Play rules and are banned from the Champions League for the next two seasons, but there's a sense around the club that the rulings do the complete opposite.
Financial Fair Play doesn't allow newcomers into the old members club. The rules prop up autocracies like the one in Madrid, one that Guardiola was desperately eager to defeat, as a point of principle.
He said otherwise, of course. The godfather of modern management insisted that Uefa's ban had little bearing on his Madrid takedown.
It was strictly business. Nothing personal.
Fortunately, Guardiola is a better tactician than he is a liar. His manoeuvring in Madrid was a timely reminder that he's still among the best in the industry.
City's unlikely first XI might as well have wandered out at the Bernabeu carrying a banner covered in Guardiola's handwriting:
Write me off at your peril.
Even Juergen Klopp doesn't take risks like this in the first leg of a Champions League tie.
Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling were dropped to the bench. Bernardo Silva and Kevin de Bruyne were the false No. 9s and Gabriel Jesus was pushed to the left side of midfield, as if Guardiola had pulled random names from a hat like a magician at a kids' party.
The loose 4-4-2 formation, which morphed into a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-0-6, smacked of an injury crisis when it looked like an identity crisis.
ON A MISSION
It was neither. This was Guardiola on a mission to prove that he still matters, that his future will not be decided by Uefa's men in suits, but by City's men in Madrid. The first leg was a test of his relevance.
He had stewed on the contest for weeks. By his own admission, he had studied more Real Madrid games than just about any other opponents this season, and with good reason.
His campaign hinges on knocking out his old La Liga nemesis. His City career depends on where they finish in the Champions League.
So the mischievous manager opted for the highest press possible, pushing up de Bruyne and Silva and confounding the hosts.
City had 16 shots on goal and largely owned the Bernabeu. Only an individual error gifted Real the lead, but the rebel wasn't done.
Guardiola swopped Silva for Sterling and went all in, attempting the kind of swashbuckling gamble that draws crowds at casino tables.
The visitors pushed even higher until victory was assured.
On the touchline, Guardiola played the dancing bear. He mimed headers, demanded tackles, urged his men forward and harangued officials until he earned a warning.
He wasn't so much a renaissance man as he was a recharged revolutionary, determined to take down a cartel from within. If City can't usurp Europe's old powers with a chequebook, they'll have to rely on their manager instead.
Now it's Guardiola's football brain versus the financial brawn of his rivals, a ludicrous proposition considering the money City have thrown around.
But that's the siege mentality being adopted among the City faithful. Laughably, Guardiola is almost being repositioned as the wronged outsider, defying the greedy monopolies that won't let him inside to play.
As City fans wallow in their martyrdom, they may feel that Guardiola is all they've got. But he's all they should need in the second leg.
Real, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United have the superior history and fan base. But they don't have Guardiola.
If anything, the Uefa ban and Guardiola's tactical alchemy should drive home the message that money alone can't buy City love and it never will.
Only Guardiola can.
Luckily for City, their manager knows that the Champions League will restate his greatness. It's more than a tournament now. It's Guardiola's obsession.
The cheeky rebel won't go down without a fight.