WE’RE GOING TO ISTANBUL!!!!!! Manchester City booked their place in this season’s UEFA Champions League Final against Inter Milan in Istanbul with a famous 4-nil victory at the Etihad over Real Madrid, clinching a 5-1 win on aggregate over the two legs. Here I’ll look at the tie over two legs, the lessons learnt and what comes next for City.
First Leg- Real Madrid 1 Manchester City 1
The scene for the mesmerising and magical Manchester City performance in the second leg was set with a mature performance in the away leg at the Bernabeu. Manchester City began the first leg in ominous form, dominating the opening half hour, but didn’t get the early goal.
Instead, a fantastic Vinicius Junior strike in the 36th minute, completely against the run of play gave Real Madrid the lead in the Semi Final first leg. In years gone by in this competition, it would’ve seen City go all out on the attack to get a goal back as quickly as possible, which against this Madrid side is fraught with danger, or succumb to a hostile environment ala late in the corresponding fixture last season. Instead this season we’ve seen this Manchester City side mature in the competition and have more steel to it than previous seasons iterations.
That fact was emphasised at the Bernabeu in the first leg as Manchester City dug in and held firm after going a goal down and stayed in the contest. They were duly rewarded in the 67th minute with a stunning Kevin De Bruyne equaliser from outside the box, which silenced the Bernabeu. Manchester City then sat in, defended resolutely and managed the remainder of the game to hold firm for a draw away at the Bernabeu.
For me, it was a massive result and showed a level of maturity in the Champions League not seen from Manchester City against the historical elite clubs. The first-leg performance also laid the groundwork for the second leg at the Etihad, which would arguably be the biggest home game in this competition seen at the Etihad.
Second Leg- Manchester City 4 Real Madrid 0 (Manchester City advance 5-1 on aggregate)
The scene was set for a massive occasion at the Etihad for the second leg of the Champions League Semi-Final. The Etihad atmosphere was electric, and the home crowd was definitely up for the occasion. The time had finally come for Manchester City to lay the ghosts of last season and the collapse at the Bernabeu in the second leg to rest.
Would Manchester City be up for the task against serial Champions League winners and current holders Real Madrid? The answer would be resounding, and the performance will live long in the memory.
Manchester City went at Real Madrid from the off. City dominated possession and pinned Real Madrid deep in their half. Anytime Real Madrid gained possession and attempted to get a foot in the game, they were hurried and pressed by a rabid Manchester City press, who were well up for the occasion, and hungry to get at the Reigning Champions.
Two world-class Thibaut Courtois saves prevented Erling Haaland from giving Manchester City the lead in the 12th & 21st minutes. Just when the thought was growing that Manchester City needed to score to ram home their early dominance, up stepped Bernardo Silva in the 23rd minute after a delightful Kevin De Bruyne through ball to thump Manchester City into the lead on the night & the tie. Bernardo’s opener lifted the proverbial roof off the Etihad and gave Manchester City the lead their blistering start and spellbinding play deserved.
Real Madrid offered their only threat of the half after Bernardo’s opener. First, a Real Madrid counter with Vinicius Junior seemingly through on goal was snuffed out expertly by Kyle Walker, and secondly, a rasping Toni Kroos rocket from outside the box was tipped onto the bar by Ederson.
Minutes after that Ederson save from Kroos, Manchester City doubled their lead. In the 37th minute, Ilkay Gundogan was played in by Jack Grealish, and his shot was deflected into the path of Bernardo Silva, who expertly looped his header into the top corner over David Alaba on the line to give Manchester City the lead they deserved.
The 2-nil lead was nothing less than Manchester City deserved after the first-half display and domination of Real Madrid. The football played in the first half was some of the best seen from Pep Guardiola’s side, and arguably the best any Manchester City side has played in recent history. It was Manchester City at their destructive and spell-binding best. Maintaining possession, playing the ball to manipulate Real Madrid to their will, and pressing Real Madrid at every opportunity to regain possession when it was lost. It made the ageless Real Madrid midfield of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos finally look their age, and City had taken the Real Madrid attacking threat of Karim Benzema, Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo completely out of the game.
The only questions at halftime were what would Real Madrid do to attempt to get back in the game, and how would City approach the second half.
Real Madrid started the second half by attempting to get on the front foot and get a foot into the game. Conversely, Manchester City again showed newfound maturity in this competition by settling in and attempting to get at Real Madrid on the counter when the chance presented. Real Madrid’s best chance after halftime was a David Alaba free kick in the 50th minute which was fantastically saved by Ederson.
City continued to threaten on the counter, and in the 71st minute, Erling Haaland was once again denied by Courtois after a sumptuous one/two with Ilkay Gundogan had played the Norwegian in on goal.
City fans didn’t have to wait long for a third after those Courtois heroics and the goal to kill off Real Madrid and the tie once and for all. That would come 6 minutes later in the 77th minute. Kevin De Bruyne whipped in a delicious free-kick which Manuel Akanji got his head to it. With the aid of a deflection off Eder Militao, Akanji’s header found the back of the net and sent the Etihad crowd and Manchester City fans everywhere delirious. Manchester City was Istanbul bound for the final, the crowd felt it & the players of both sides knew it.
There was time for Manchester City to add a 4th in the 91st minute and that came from Julian Alvarez. Alvarez had only just come onto the pitch for Erling Haaland a minute before that, and he was expertly played through by Phil Foden who had replaced an exhausted Kevin De Bruyne in the 84th minute. It was nothing less than what City deserved and sealed a famous win for Manchester City.
Lessons learnt and what comes next for Manchester City
The lessons learnt for me out of this famous Manchester City Semi-Final win is that Manchester City has finally matured and learnt the painful lessons of years past in this competition.
When the time came in the first leg away to RB Leipzig in the Second Round, Manchester City knuckled down and held tight to get a 1-all draw away from home, setting the stage for a 7-nil win at the Etihad to book progression to the Quarter Final.
The same nerve was required after the pulsating 3 nil first-leg win at home to Bayern Munich in the Quarter Final stage. Bayern went at City in the second leg at the Allianz Arena, but Manchester City held firm until an Erling Haaland goal on the break ended the Bayern challenge.
The same traits that were evident in the previous round were seen and amplified over the two legs of this tie against Real Madrid. When faced with adversity after going a goal down at the Bernabeu, City got to work and refused to lose, and left a notoriously tough venue to get a result with a priceless draw. Without that steel shown at the Bernabeu, the magic of the Etihad wouldn’t be possible and it showed a level of maturity this side hasn’t had in the Champions League before.
This Manchester City team now has the required grit, determination and maturity to go with the skillful passing, and mesmerising attacking football it’s always possessed. Those traits combined vanquished Real Madrid and put the ghosts to the bed of last season once and for all.
What comes next in this competition is the Final against Inter Milan. They will be worthy opponents who thoroughly deserve their place in the Final and a massive occasion awaits. But before that is another home game at the Etihad against Chelsea this upcoming Sunday, with a City win sealing a third consecutive Premier League title. So for another day or so, I’ll enjoy what was achieved against Real Madrid before switching my attention to Chelsea.