Real Madrid switch style to knock out Pep Guardiola's Manchester City, book place in Champions League semi-finals | Football News - Hindustan Times
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Real Madrid switch style to knock out Pep Guardiola's Manchester City, book place in Champions League semi-finals

ByDhiman Sarkar, Kolkata
Apr 18, 2024 05:10 PM IST

Used to bossing the ball in La Liga, the visitors showed defensive discipline to shut out the defending champions.

It could have been an all-English semi-final in one and a Spanish affair in another. It wasn’t. It could even have been three Spanish clubs in the penultimate round of football’s toughest competition. It wasn’t. Instead, two teams from Germany have made the last-four stage and trying to stop them will be a club seeking its 15th Champions League title and another its first. Harry Kane’s quest for European silverware is alive, Erling Haaland’s bid for a double treble is not after different kind of thrillers in Manchester and Madrid.

Real Madrid's Jude Bellingham celebrates after winning the match (REUTERS)
Real Madrid's Jude Bellingham celebrates after winning the match (REUTERS)

Haaland was on Nacho early on Wednesday and had slid in to meet a Kevin de Bruyne delivery but Andriy Lunin, who would emerge Real Madrid’s hero in the tie-breaker, got there first and he had Antonio Rüdiger for cover. A header into the horizontal followed. Another header in the 28th minute, off a Jack Grealish pass, was a halfway house between testing Lunin and trying to find a teammate so ended up being neither.

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Eight minutes later, the Norwegian used his size and strength to burst down the middle and find Grealish but the return ball was blocked by Rüdiger. Booed at every touch for his role that led to De Bruyne’s injury in the 2021 Champions League final, Rüdiger had another excellent night which ended with him converting the decisive penalty and then doing a shorter version of the 2009 Emmanuel Adebayor slide.

By then, over three hours of open play had failed to separate teams who drew 3-3 in Madrid and 1-1 in the return-leg; Rodrygo’s 12th minute goal being neutralised De Bruyne’s 76th minute strike. The tie see-sawed even through the penalties where Luka Modric missed, Julan Alvarez didn’t; Lunin showed the smarts to fool Bernardo Silva before saving Mateo Kovačiċ’s shot; Ederson, Phil Foden scored but so did Nacho, Lucas Vasquez and Rüdiger.

Head band off, arms crooked at the elbow, hands balled into fists, Modric broke the penalties’ team bonding ran like this was his first and not fourth successive Champions League semi-final. A season that would end with Jürgen Klopp and Xavi leaving and Thomas Tuchel being asked to do so could now finish with either the Bayern manager or Modric winning another European club title.

Without a goal in his last four games against Real Madrid, Haaland watched the celebration from the bench. Grealish and De Bruyne tried all night but the visitors had stopped the ball from reaching him. Yet, no one in Manchester City had Haaland’s xG of 0.68 and five attempts. Once, he pressed Toni Kroos as Real Madrid were pushed into a corner that felt like a cul de sac. Deep in second-half stoppage time, Haaland dropped deep but Nacho followed him. When he chased Dani Carvajal with Lunin out of position, the right-back calmly steered the ball away.

That was the measure of Real Madrid’s defensive discipline at a stadium they haven’t won and where City rarely lose. As per FBRef.com, Real Madrid’s average possession in 23-24 La Liga is 59.6%, second only to Barcelona. At Manchester, Real had 32% possession, got their first corner-kick in the 106th minute (City had got 17 by then), played less than half the passes City did and mustered fewer than a fourth of their shots. “In other sports, for (these) statistics we would have won,” said Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.

Lunin made eight saves but barring one from Grealish they were mostly regulation catches. In front of the back four, Kroos kept close watch on De Bruyne, Rüdiger and Nacho again denied Haaland and Carvajal’s duels with Grealish and then Jeremy Doku provided an interesting sub-plot in this clash between the defending champions and those who, in Real manager Carlo Ancelotti’s words, always find a way.

Penned in the back third for most of the match, Real were slick with counter-attacks initially. Jude Bellingham’s brilliant control helped in the goal which reminded of Michael Ballack’s strike in the 2002 World Cup semi-final. Real needed some luck too – no team can manage a game against City without a large slice of it – with the ball pinging off Bernardo Silva, bouncing too high for Haaland and de Bruyne blasting over in the 81st minute.

But the disciple Real displayed in deploying the low block showed how good they were adapting to a playing style they use once in blue moon. That too against a team that has scored three goals in all their Champions League games till this one. “Congratulations to Madrid because their capacity to resist and defend till the end, they did so fantastically,” said Guardiola.

Rüdiger could have snatched a goal late in extra-time after Real Madrid shrugged off the weariness of defending all night as easily as players remove coats in the English spring. “Most teams would fall apart when City get on top of you, but we stood up really well. It came down to mentality,” said Bellingham.

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