Until this season, Manchester City’s progression in the Champions League could be measured in baby steps but on Tuesday, they can make a huge leap forward when they host Real Madrid in their first European semi-final for 45 years.
The Abu Dhabi-backed English club have already broken new ground this season, moving past the last 16 stage that proved their limit for the past two seasons having failed even to survive the group stage prior to that.
In seeing off Paris St Germain, who have similar financial muscle, in the quarter-finals they delivered a powerful statement of intent to reach their first semi-final since a European Cup Winners’ Cup defeat by Chelsea in 1971.
They also kept alive the intriguing possibility of a Milan final against Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich, whose manager Pep Guardiola will take over the Manchester City hot seat from former Real Madrid manager Manuel Pellegrini next season.
First, however, City’s defence must find a way of keeping Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema quiet at their Etihad Stadium so as to arrive at their opponents’ Santiago Bernabeu fortress with something tangible to hang on to.
Ronaldo has scored 47 times this season, including 16 in just 10 Champions League appearances, but Pellegrini says he knows how to stop the Portuguese goal machine.
“I knew all about him from (my team) playing (against) Manchester United when I was at Villarreal,” Pellegrini said.
“We played them four times in the Champions League and each time it was 0-0, so defensively we must have been doing something right.”
While City’s recent form has been on the rise, if a little late to stop the Premier League’s fairytale title hunters Leicester City, Real have been almost unstoppable of late as they try and chase down Barcelona in La Liga.
Since the beginning of March Zinedine Zidane’s side have won nine La Liga games in a row and even when they suffered a hiccup in a 2-0 defeat by Wolfsburg in the Champions League quarter-final they responded with a 3-0 home victory.
The Wolfsburg loss gives City cause for optimism, though, and with their Argentina striker Sergio Aguero and Belgium midfielder Kevin De Bruyne finishing the season with a flourish, Real’s defence will be given a testing examination.
Aguero, who recently reached the 100-goal milestone in the Premier League, never finished on the winning side against Real while he was at Atletico Madrid and he will be itching to put the record straight against the 10-times European champions.
Wales forward Bale has, however, warned City that Real, who are appearing in their 27th European Cup semi-final, will seek to inflict some damage before finishing the job next week.
“I think that the most important thing is to score away from home, said Bale, who scored twice as Real came back to beat Rayo Vallecano 3-2 in La Liga at the weekend.
“At the Santiago Bernabeu we are very strong and, obviously, we’ll have a lot of chances. As long as we don’t lose there, we’ll be very confident at the Bernabeu.” (Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Ken Ferris)