Real Madrid teach Man City a lesson in Champions League epic

MANCHESTER England — It’s clear that Manchester City have established themselves within football’s elite since Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan began to transform the club in 2008, but Real Madrid occupy an even higher echelon in the game’s hierarchy, delivering a painful reminder by dethroning the European champions and ending Pep Guardiola’s hopes of a double-treble.

Wednesday’s victory should serve as a reminder that Real Madrid should never be underestimated or written off, even against a team as accomplished as Guardiola’s City.

Antonio Rudiger’s coolly converted spot-kick in the penalty shootout at the end of this pulsating quarterfinal tie sealed a 4-3 win on penalties for Real after a 4-4 aggregate draw over the two games. City dominated both fixtures — emphatically so in the second leg — but Real are Real, the 14-time European Cup/Champions League winners, and they have a history of getting the job done. Even Guardiola’s treble winners couldn’t overcome them.

“We defended really, really well tonight,” Real coach Carlo Ancelotti said. “This was about survival. Madrid is a club based on always fighting to stay in situations where there seems to be no way out — but we always find a way.”

A year ago, City routed Real 4-0 in the semifinal second leg on their way to winning the Champions League for the first time against Inter Milan in Istanbul. Their victory and performance hinted a shift in the balance of power in Europe, of the old powerhouses being eclipsed by this team of talents built by the wealth and expertise of its Abu Dhabi owners. But while City have become the dominant force in England, ahead of the historically more successful Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea, the Champions League is much more difficult terrain to conquer.

No previous treble winner in the post-1992 Champions League era — United, Inter Milan, Barcelona (twice), Bayern Munich (twice) — has defended the European crown of their three-pronged success the following season. Real are the only side to retain their Champions League title since 1992, meaning City always had a mountain to climb.

Yet City have become so powerful under Guardiola that they really looked set to buck the trend this season. The tale of the tape in this game — 33 shots to Real’s eight, and such dominance in possession that their pass count, 919, was more than double the 458 achieved by Carlo Ancelotti’s side — only served to emphasise how City can smother and suffocate an opponent. They failed to capitalise on their dominance, and Real produced a performance more associated with a heavy underdog by defending deep, attacking on the counter and relying on the outstanding display of their goalkeeper Andriy Lunin to stay in the game.

“Football is about winning and we didn’t do enough, yet we were exceptional,” Guardiola said after the game. “Sometimes you can win on penalties and sometimes you cannot. But in the game, we did not convert the chances that we had, even though we defended really. Everyone performed at a high level. We said we would have to be at our best to play Real Madrid and they were.”

Guardiola’s view of the game was a fair reflection and it would be foolish to use this defeat and quarterfinal exit as a signal of the end of an era at the Etihad. Champions League failures naturally receive greater scrutiny, but while both Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva struggled at times in this game, they also had outstanding moments. In the end, it was just one of those games when a City team that has grown so accustomed to getting its way and winning when the pressure is truly on suddenly discovered it was as fallible as any other side.

After falling behind to Rodrygo’s 12th-minute goal, City put Real under intense pressure and created countless chances. Erling Haaland, Silva, De Bruyne and Jack Grealish all failed to take advantage of their clear opportunities, and Real’s confidence grew as a result of the home side’s inability to score.



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When De Bruyne levelled the tie from close range after good work by Jérémy Doku in the 76th minute, City were expected to turn the screw and score the winner. Real were exhausted and City full-back Kyle Walker, who was fit and fresh enough to play for 120 minutes despite a month on the sidelines, highlighted the momentum in his side’s favour by outpacing and outmuscling Vinícius Júnior in a race for the ball in the 102nd minute. (The Brazilian was withdrawn shortly after to be replaced by Lucas Vázquez, who would go on to score in the shootout.)

Yet although City kept Real penned deep in their own half, they couldn’t find the finishing goal and had to accept the lottery of penalties with their treble hopes on the line. Two poor spot-kicks by Silva and Mateo Kovacic, both easily saved by Lunin, gave Real the edge after Luka Modric had missed their his side’s first, though Rudiger made sure of victory and a semifinal clash against Bayern Munich by scoring the decisive penalty.

Real march on, but City now have a Premier League title to win and an FA Cup semifinal against Chelsea at Wembley on Saturday. Injuries and fatigue will be the major worry for Guardiola, who saw Haaland and De Bruyne limp off with fitness concerns that could make City vulnerable against Mauricio Pochettino’s team and result in another tournament exit within a week.

Even if they lose at Wembley, nothing will sting as much as their Champions League failure.

A huge banner held aloft by their fans before the game was of a bus with the words “Wembley Express” along the side, pointing to a trip to stadium for the Champions League final in June. But City won’t need a bus for that one. Their job now is to make sure that Saturday’s journey isn’t their last Wembley ride of the season.

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