In a wild Champions League semifinal that resembled a basketball game at times, Manchester City held off a stirring challenge by Real Madrid 4-3 in the first leg.
Pep Guardiola lost himself in frustration at various points, not least when Riyad Mahrez committed the sin of finding the side-netting rather than squaring for the unmarked Phil Foden. That could have been 3-0 for Manchester City.
Guardiola found himself crouched in fear when Real Madrid ran through after a Rúben Dias slip. He would be booked for losing the plot after a throw-in went against his team. This is what the Champions League can do to a manager, especially when glory is so close. Or perhaps, this is what playing against this Real Madrid team can do.
Guardiola would wheel away in delight on 74 minutes when Oleksandr Zinchenko was fouled on the edge of the area and everybody seemed to stop – apart from Bernardo Silva, who lashed an unstoppable shot into the near top corner. After a crazy game, blighted by defensive errors, City had a 4-2 lead. At last, they looked set for a well-plumped cushion after the first installment of this semi-final. Goodness knows they had done enough at one end to earn it.
City were placed on top of the Deloitte money league for 2021, having generated revenues of £571.1m, with Real second on £567.3m. But everybody knows which of the clubs has the European pedigree. It was City’s third European Cup semi-final, the first having seen a limp 1-0 aggregate loss to Real in 2016. For the Spaniards, it was number 31.
City did exactly that at the outset, drawing first blood with just 93 seconds on the stadium clock and there was no surprise about the identity of the scorer. When Mahrez picked up possession on the right and slalomed inside, into a seam of space he seemed to make bigger, jinking away from Luka Modric, De Bruyne knew what he had to do. The attacking midfielder bolted into the area, past flat-footed defenders and, when Mahrez crossed, he had the position on Dani Carvajal, crouching to throw himself into the header and score past Thibaut Courtois.
The Etihad had been a strangely subdued place counting down to kick-off and even in the opening minute. Now it stirred, the second goal coming quickly afterwards to a mixture of joy and disbelief. Surely it was not going to be this easy?
City pushed high and it was impossible to describe Real’s defenders as anything other than extremely uncomfortable in the opening 30 minutes, especially in possession. Real were open, they made errors and it felt as though City could establish a decisive advantage. They had the chances.
Mahrez shot into the side-netting when he had Foden free in the middle, drawing a furious reaction from Guardiola, while Foden dragged wide of the far post after a fluent counterattack, with De Bruyne playing the last pass. The strange thing was that City caught the defensive jitters, too. The goalkeeper, Ederson, played a couple of poor passes in the first half, inviting pressure, and Rúben Dias was caught on the ball. Vinícius Júnior flickered off the left. Alaba also rose and flashed a header wide.
Real’s goal for 2-1 was not a surprise because City had grown needlessly sloppy. It was a classy finish from Benzema, a controlled volley in front of Oleksandr Zinchenko from Ferland Mendy’s cross and, with Rodrygo running through and shooting at Ederson, the pendulum, as half-time approached, had swung.
The pace and intensity was remorseless and it was too much for John Stones, who had started as an emergency right-back, with Kyle Walker injured and João Cancelo suspended. Passed fit on the day of the game after a muscular problem, Stones lasted only 36 minutes.
Guardiola replaced him with Fernandinho, another stopgap, and it was the 36-year-old that sprinted up the right to cross for Foden to score the City third, having stepped up to win the ball. Where was the marking? Real’s defensive looseness was astonishing. Moments earlier, Éder Militão had erred, allowing Mahrez to race through and curl against the post. From the rebound, Carvajal threw himself into a block to deny Foden, who had to score.
Guardiola lived every second, passions whirring and he felt the blood rush to his head when he felt his team ought to have had a throw in. Having charged after the fourth official, he was given a yellow card.
Moments later, Real were back in it. Again. Vinícius tricked Fernandinho and blasted away from him up the left, and he kept going and going. Vinícius cut inside and stroked past Ederson.