Manchester City 0 Real Madrid 0: Just when everyone was expecting a goalscoring free-for-all, Manchester City demonstrated — in their first ever Champions League semi-final — that they have the tactical nous to be serious contenders as they earned a goalless draw against Real Madrid at the Etihad.
You could not say it was a perfect performance — City barely managed a shot on target all match and Real, who were without injured Cristiano Ronaldo, remain strong favourites for the second leg next Wednesday. But nevertheless it was a creditable result which keeps Manuel Pellegrini’s side very much in the tie as they head to Madrid still dreaming of reaching the final — perhaps even against Bayern Munich and City’s next manager, Pep Guardiola.
“We’ve set it up for a good, old-fashioned rumble at the Bernabeu,” said goalkeeper Joe Hart, who made two excellent saves to earn the draw. City fans must hope their team still have an extra gear for the second leg.
The performance made a mockery of those who suggest Pellegrini does not have the tactical ability to manage these kind of fixtures and of those who have claimed, time and time again, that his defence is not strong enough to win trophies in Europe.
With Vincent Kompany back to marshal the back four, and Hart making a stunning save from Pepe to keep them level, City held out admirably against Real’s Galacticos and certainly did not look out of their depth.
So no goals but still a fascinating battle; Europe’s grand old masters — playing in their 27th European Cup semi-final — against the upstarts from Manchester who were playing in their very first. Old money against new money, old school against new school.
If it were down to Uefa coefficients then of course City would have no chance; but their performance against PSG in the quarter-finals had provided plenty of hope that Manuel Pellegrini’s men would at least put up a fight. And they did.
The only problem was that, set up to strangle Real and play in bursts on the break, City couldn’t quite stamp their authority on a game that was at times tentative and on other occasions subdued. A goalless draw is by no means a bad result; but it could have been more.
“It is maybe the most important game that this club has played in its history,” Pellegrini said before kick-off, but his words didn’t translate into excitement or drama.
The first half was so quiet that at times it was painful viewing; and it ended as one of only four Champions League ties this season which reached the half-way point with not a single shot on target from either team.
Perhaps we should have listened to the pre-match words of Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas because while pundits were talking about a goalscoring free-for-all at the Etihad and hyping up a battle between Ronaldo and Aguero, the Chilean was predicting a far more dour affair. “Both teams are very strong up front so the truth is the team that is strongest in defence over the two ties will be in the final. For me that’s very clear,” he said.
He was speaking from a position of strength — because although all the headlines have been about Ronaldo’s 16 goals in the competition in 2015-16, including a hat-trick in the quarter-final against Wolfsburg, Navas had also kept seven clean sheets in eight ties going into this game.
The absence of Ronaldo from Real’s starting line-up, however, gave City added impetus. A tight hamstring was blamed for his omission although the Portuguese admitted in a pre-match interview that, had it been the final, he would have played. So you suspect he’ll be back for the second leg in Madrid.
Without him on the field, and with Kompany back at the heart of City’s defence, the home team seemed to have little difficulty coping with a Real side who have been on something of a roll both at home and abroad since Zinedine Zidane replaced the much-lambasted Rafa Benitez as manager.
Real still harbour hopes of overtaking Barcelona at the top of La Liga but City, still struggling to cement a top-four place in England, looked anything but overawed and were certainly the equal of their rivals in most areas of the pitch.
Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi were faultless in that opening period, while Fernandinho and Fernando worked tirelessly in midfield to deny the Spanish side space.
The only problem was they simply couldn’t get the ball to Aguero, who was a virtual passenger, while the influential David Silva went off injured to be replaced by young striker Kelechi Iheanacho.
Aguero did manage a shot at goal straight after the break was also denied by Navas, who dived bravely at his feet, but there were few punctuation marks in a match which was played largely between the two penally boxes.
Real, however, came closest, despite losing Karim Benzema to injury at half-time as they gradually began to dominate possession.
A looping header from Benzema’s replacement, Jese, hit the bar before Gareth Bale curled a shot narrowly wide — and then Hart produced a stunning close-range save to deny Pepe with 10 minutes to go.
In the end it was a job well done; the only question is whether City can do it again — and add an attacking edge — even when Ronaldo is on the pitch in the Bernabeu.
Hart 8, Sagna 6, Kompany 8, Otamendi 7, Clichy 7, Fernandinho 8, Fernando 7, Jesus Navas 6 (Sterling 75; 6), De Bruyne 6, Silva 6 (Iheanacho 40; 6), Aguero 5. Subs: Caballero, Zabalet, Kolarov, Delph, Mangala,.
Navas 7, Carvajal 6, Sergio Ramos 7, Pepe 7, Marcelo 6, Modric 6, Casemiro 6, Kroos 7 (Isco 90), Lucas 6, Benzema 6 (Jesse 46; 7), Bale 6. Subs: Casilla, Varane, Rodriguez, Kovacic,, Danilo.
Cuneyt Cakir (Turkey)
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