MADRID — Manchester City avoided a repeat of their Real Madrid nightmare, but they can’t dream about winning the Champions League just yet.
The fear and respect displayed by both sides in Tuesday’s 1-1 draw at the Santiago Bernabeu served a purpose, but the side which cuts loose and goes for broke at next week’s return leg at the Etihad will make it to the final in Istanbul on June 10.
When a team emerges unbeaten from the away fixture of a two-legged tie, they have the right to consider themselves as favourites for the home game. City will expect to get the result they need to reach their second final of the competition when Real visit Manchester next week.
But for that to happen, Pep Guardiola’s side must look to dominate, intimidate and overcome a side that is arguably the most accomplished in world football when it comes to holding its nerve and getting a result.
“They [Real] are so demanding, with the experience and quality,” Guardiola said after Tuesday’s result. “When you play this kind of game, it is like a playoff, so hopefully we can learn, defend better and attack better.”
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Real came back from the dead in last season’s semifinal second-leg match with a pair of 90th minute goals, which wiped out City’s two-goal advantage, with Karim Benzema winning the game in extra time. And in this season’s round of 16, Carlo Ancelotti’s players were down two goals after just 14 minutes of the first leg at Liverpool — only to win 5-2 on the night. Nobody comes back from that kind of position at Anfield — Barcelona’s 4-0 collapse in the second leg of the 2019 semifinal is the ultimate example of that — but Real did.
So while Kevin De Bruyne’s 67th minute equaliser following Vinicius Junior’s unstoppable opener in the first half tilted the tie in City’s favour, the margins are still so tight. Real can destroy any opponent on the counterattack, which is why City held something back in the Bernabeu. The fear of being subjected to the same kind of ruthless finishing which cost them a place in last season’s final was clearly at the forefront of their minds and it will still be there next week.
But dealing with that is the Rubicon that City must cross. They will have to take the risks that will create chances for Real in a high-stakes game of football roulette and, in turn, Real will attempt to capitalise on the pressure that City are under to finally win the Champions League.
Real will strut into the Etihad as 14-time tournament winners and they will take every opportunity to make City suffer an inferiority complex, but every major team has to overcome that challenge — one that City now have to meet. They have dominated English football for the best part of a decade and established themselves as a major force in Europe. What they don’t have is a defining European victory, so beating Real next week gives them that opportunity and it is a psychological battle as much as a football one.
So how do they do it? What will make the difference and enable them to beat the ultimate Champions League competitors? Two players will be key — De Bruyne and Erling Haaland. When De Bruyne delivers, as he did in the Bernabeu, City rarely lose. Rewind to the Champions League final defeat against Chelsea in 2021 and City’s hopes nosedived when the Belgian midfielder sustained a broken cheekbone in a clash with then-Blues defender Antonio Rudiger on 60 minutes.
Guardiola has managed De Bruyne strategically in recent months. Exhausted both physically and emotionally by Belgium’s poor display at the World Cup, Guardiola rested and even dropped De Bruyne in the weeks and months after his return from Qatar, but the plan was to give the midfielder a break and ensure he was fit and firing at this crucial stage of the season. With two goals in the 4-1 Premier League win against Arsenal last month and the goal against Real, De Bruyne is doing exactly what Guardiola planned — peaking at the perfect moment.
Haaland, on the other hand, has rarely strayed from peak form this season. With 51 goals in all competitions, he has been the signing of the season and could prove to be one of the most important signings any club has ever made if he scores the goals to help City pull off a Treble this season. But in Madrid, Haaland was quiet — he registered just 21 touches of the ball — and was marked out of the game by Rudiger’s physical strength and awareness, with defensive partner David Alaba also having a big impact on nullifying the City forward. Too often, Haaland’s runs were not spotted early enough by his teammates, but even still, this was a rare off-night.
But if Haaland is anywhere close to his best next week, Real will have a mountain to climb to stop him scoring. City like to start like a whirlwind at the Etihad and Real will have to weather the early storm which will have Haaland at the heart of it. But Real are Real and they have achieved incomprehensible results in this season and others. City haven’t lost a home leg in a Champions League knockout tie since 2018 and they have never been beaten by Real at the Etihad, so the form guide favours Guardiola’s team.
That will only motivate Real, however. They are team which relishes overcoming the odds.
“We’ll enter the second leg with the same confidence and optimism that we can win over there,” Real midfielder Luka Modric said. “Neither team comes away from this with a big advantage. The tie is open, about 50-50, and we were pretty sure that nothing would be settled tonight.”
City are now slight favourites, though, and that brings its own pressures. They simply have to justify that tag and rise to the occasion. They have done that so many times, but Real Madrid are no ordinary opponent, so the nightmare could still return to haunt City next week.