Watching Pep Guardiola watch this Champions League semi-final thriller, in which a healthy first-leg lead appeared for his Manchester City side at various points, was to watch a manager in agony.
He was incandescent when Riyad Mahrez hit into the side netting with Phil Foden for the square pass in front of goal. It could have been 3-0 for City after 26 minutes.
Guardiola looked like he wanted to curl into a ball when Rúben Dias gave away the ball shortly after and allowed Vinícius Júnior through, even though the Real striker couldn’t finish. City’s defense was exceptionally loose.
And what about the moment in the 54th minute, shortly after Foden made it 3-1? Guardiola had expected a throw-in for his side only for it to go the other way. He reacted by running after the fourth referee to earn a yellow card. Vinícius would make it 3-2 almost immediately.
That’s what City’s quest for a first Champions League does to the man who wants it, maybe needs it, more than anyone. And, maybe, that’s also what playing against this Real team does to the opponents. Facing them is like walking through a park with a lion on the loose. Good, even quite pleasant, thrilling. Then suddenly not well. When Gabriel Jesus made it 2-0 in the 11th minute, it looked ridiculously easy for City. They could have led 4-0 in the first half hour. And yet, at half-time, the advantage was just 2-1, with Karim Benzema popping up to show his lethal advantage.
City pushed again after Vinícius’ goal. When Oleksandr Zinchenko was fouled by Toni Kroos, everyone seemed to stop – certainly Eduardo Camavinga and Dani Carvajal. Bernardo Silva did not. With the referee, Istvan Kovacs, playing a smart advantage, the City midfielder fired into the near top corner and Guardiola could lose himself in joy.
It won’t last, with Real taking a break to rally again. Jumping for a high ball, Aymeric Laporte nodded it into his outstretched arm. Sadness. No one doubted Benzema would convert but the goofy Panenka in the middle, the perfect disguise, was the boldness and poise of another plane. Benzema is the competition’s top scorer with 14 goals while he has 41 goals in 41 appearances for Real this season. Guardiola collapsed on a cooler.
Real had been second-best for long stretches in the round of 16 and quarter-finals against Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea. Still, they found a way through – partly thanks to Benzema’s goals, partly because of their history, who they are. The 13 times winners refuse to lose in this competition. And they are still alive in this edition.
In the final act, Dias stretched at the far post for Real to meet a cross but didn’t stretch far enough. Guardiola suffered his latest round of contortions. In the heat of the moment, it was possible to forget that City had in fact beaten champions-elect Spain, outplaying them for long stretches. They should have scored more goals. It’s never a good thing to allow that opponent to fight another day.
It was City’s third European Cup semi-final while for Real it was number 31. Enjoy it, Guardiola had told his players, and City did just that from the start, by drawing first blood after 93 seconds. Mahrez cut into a seam of space, pulling away from Luka Modric before choosing Kevin De Bruyne’s last-minute run, who threw himself into the lead with Carvajal – then Thibaut Courtois – flailing.
The Etihad had been a strangely subdued place before kick-off. Now it stirred and, when the second goal came, there was joy, even disbelief. Foden moved wide to the left and, when he found De Bruyne, the cross was whipped into the area. David Alaba tried to pinch in front of Jesus to take possession, which seemed risky, and he was wrong. When Jesus turned, the ball was still there at his feet. The finish was simple.
Real’s defenders were uncomfortable, especially on the ball when City pressed. The visitors were there for the taking and it looked like City were about to inflict some serious damage. Mahrez had to pass to Foden only to take the shot – a poor decision – while Foden trailed away from the far post after a smooth counter-attack. Foden’s quick feet and velvet feel were an eye-catching feature.
Defensive jitters, however, weren’t exclusive to Real. City goalkeeper Ederson played a few bad passes in the first half, inviting pressure, while Dias was caught more than once. Vinícius faltered, Alaba got up to throw a wide header, then Benzema scored with a controlled volley from Ferland Mendy’s cross.
Guardiola had to replace the injured John Stones, who replaced the right-back in the absence of Kyle Walker and João Cancelo, with Fernandinho. It was the 36-year-old who crossed for Foden’s goal – moments after Éder Militão allowed Mahrez to run to curl up against the far post. From the rebound Foden fired and Carvajal blocked.
But it was Fernandinho who was beaten and edged out by Vinícius for 3-2, City’s defensive cover nowhere to be found. Laporte and Mahrez missed big chances either side of Silva’s goal, but the last word would go to Benzema.