There was, of course, context. There always is. Three weeks ago, Real Madrid scored twice in the Stadio Olimpico, and as such Roma needed to overturn a two-goal deficit from the first leg of their Champions League knockout tie. That is something that no team has done since the European Cup had a midlife crisis and became the Champions League. So the game, if not technically done, was starting to brown on top.
But even with that in mind, Madrid's performance in the first hour of Tuesday's second leg was a remarkable thing. Remarkable in its indolence. Remarkable in its sloppiness. Remarkable in its ability to inspire a keening headache in even the most casual, disinterested viewer, such as your correspondent.
They could have lost, too. Well, they certainly could have been inconvenienced, had Roma's attacking threat not been headed up by Edin Dzeko and Mohamed Salah, two footballers whose undoubted talents are only matched by their chronic inconsistency. Every time they found themselves in a little bit of space, Keylor Navas advanced from his goal; every time, like a greyhound seeing a rabbit, they panicked and shot past the post.
But that's just ordinary frustration, the kind that comes in every game. Forwards miss more often than they hit, because scoring goals is difficult. Madrid, on the other hand, were frustrating on a much grander scale. If there is pleasure to be found in watching a team function as a team — that is, as a collection of players that combine in such a fashion as to elevate themselves as a unit above the sum of their parts — then it makes sense that there can be something irritating about watching the opposite. In seeing a collection of players clank and clatter against one another like mismatched gears; in watching the whole machine sputter and shake.
Or perhaps the irritation comes not from the team being bad and incoherent, but from the sense that there's no excuse for the team to be so bad and incoherent. The world is full of unbalanced football teams, but Madrid are one of the few that don't really have anything to blame for that fact. They have the resources and the cachet to build a squad that is both resilient and balanced while at the same time being brilliant, yet they have instead decided to ... well, to dick about. To become an institutional exercise in presidential caprice, and a temple to the ancient religion of groupieism.
Alternatively, maybe it's something to do with the personalities involved on the pitch. Madrid have some wonderful, spellbinding footballers, but those same footballers can be fist-gnawingly irritating at their worst. And in that first hour we saw Cristiano Ronaldo at his brandiest, thumping free kicks into the crowd. Marcelo at his shonkiest, powering forwards and ambling backwards. James Rodríguez at his most diffident, Toni Kroos at his loosest, Danilo at his most Julien Faubert, Gareth Bale at something like his most invisible (though, context again, this was his first start since injury). If it hadn't been for Luka Modric and the Mohamed Salah-Eden Dzeko horror show, Wolfsburg-Gent might have been the better viewing option. Or even [shudder] Hull-Arsenal.
Or maybe it's that crowd, the ambient soundtrack of the entire affair. All the following comes with the caveat that this was on television, and so subject to the positioning of microphones and the whims of a production crew, but that crowd. A bristling, seething morass of frustration; 80,000 people either quivering on the point of having a really loud whistle, or having a really loud whistle. Understandable to a point, perhaps, given the cold porridge on the pitch before them, but nobody sounded like they were having any fun.
Then they scored. Substitute Lucas Vázquez found some twinkle-toes, Ronaldo beat keeper and defender to the ball, and the tie, which had been dead to start with but had spent an hour threatening to clamber back out of the ground, was dead once more. Roma brought on Francesco Totti for a Bernabéu ovation, and Madrid snapped into something approaching coherence. James got the second goal, Ronaldo could have had a couple more, and the worrying thought arrived: maybe this was all just about that context.
A nearly foregone conclusion, a couple of players missing, a couple of other players coming back from injury, a novice manager finding his feet ... OK, so Madrid were flirting with disaster a little more heavily than is advisable, but to expect vibrant brilliance under those circumstances would be frankly unreasonable. Perhaps the real source of the frustration is something wider, stemming from the nagging thought that this shiny, expensive, ultra-hyped occasion — for even though the game itself wasn't too important, this was a shiny, expensive, ultra-hyped team competing in this shiny, expensive, ultra-hyped tournament — should be shining a little brighter.
Such are the promises that come along with the brand that is "Real Madrid," and the words of the Champions League anthem. These are the best teams, it vows. Nobody has ever been more grandly equipped. And then — surprise! — it's just another football match, messy and boring and inhibited by context. Real Madrid are intergalactic, but the space between the stars is flat, airless and empty. Some things, it turns out, are beyond even the redemptive power of Gazprom.
Bring on the European Super League!