Kings of Europe can reclaim crown as Man City denied the double treble

Man City 1-1 Real Madrid (4-4 on agg, 3-4 on penalties): Kevin De Bruyne sent the tie to a shootout after Rodrygo’s opener

Richard Jolly
at the Etihad Stadium
Thursday 18 April 2024 07:22 BST
Man City 'exceptional' against Real Madrid despite crashing out of Champions League, says Guardiola

The champions were dethroned by the kings. Manchester City’s reign lasted only a year. Real Madrid, the club Pep Guardiola has long described as the kings of Europe, expelled City from continental competition by doing what they always do. They found a way.

It required a wonderful rearguard action, a random assortment of penalty takers, a couple of saves from a goalkeeper, in Andriy Lunin, who would have been on the bench had Thibaut Courtois not suffered cruciate ligament damage or had Kepa Arrizabalaga displayed better form.

But Real, buffeted but not beaten, defiant but not defeated, found a way past Guardiola’s favourites. Now a semi-final against Bayern Munich beckons. Now a 15th European Cup could do, along with a fifth of Carlo Ancelotti’s extraordinary career.

For City, there will be no double treble. Real ensured they will remain the only club to retain the Champions League in the last three decades.

And City, who led in the Bernabeu, who led in the penalty shootout when the quintuple Champions League winner Luka Modric drove his effort straight at Ederson, it was a case of what might have been.

They could also rue Bernardo Silva’s aberration of a spot kick, which was caught by Lunin, who barely had to move. Mateo Kovacic, often a shootout specialist, drilled his effort at the Ukrainian. City may have wished that Erling Haaland and the outstanding Kevin De Bruyne were still on the pitch but both had been substituted. In their stead, Ederson proved a fine penalty taker, along with Julian Alvarez and Phil Foden. But it was not enough. Jude Bellingham altered the direction of the shootout after Modric missed. The substitute Lucas Vasquez scored. So did the defenders Nacho and Antonio Rudiger, the men who had frustrated City all night. They, more than anyone else, were Ancelotti’s stalwarts, Real’s saviours.

Real win to play in yet another semi-final
Real win to play in yet another semi-final (Martin Rickett/PA Wire)

There was a theory that perhaps only Real could stop City, and Real did. City had more than two-thirds of the ball, 80 per cent of the shots, 94 percent of the corners. Yet, in a way, they met their match.

For all their differences, there is an evenness to many of their meetings. It is why this has the feel of a modern-day continental Clasico. There was no repeat of the 4-0 last year; there was never going to be. Such results stand out in Real’s history because of their rarity. This group showed their resourcefulness, their refusal to be intimidated. City could not beat them in 90 minutes, or 180, or 210, or 10 spot kicks.

Real led for an hour, Rodrygo threatening to eliminate City from the Champions League for the second time in three seasons. The 2022 semi-final hero had scored his fourth goal in five games against them, his second in eight days. In a topsy-turvy tie, Real regained the lead. Rodrygo finished the rebound after miscuing his first effort straight at Ederson.

Real Madrid celebrate after scoring
Real Madrid celebrate after scoring (Getty Images)

It summed up Real’s threat. They played a game of patience, content to wait while City had the ball, quick to counterattack when they did not. Lacking a specialist striker, they instead had the movement of their two Brazilians. Ancelotti had promised no surprises. But he has a light touch, a capacity to influence proceedings while seemingly doing nothing. He used Vinicius as a striker again, taking him out of the fit-again Kyle Walker’s orbit, giving the winger a licence to roam in the middle. Yet even as Real held on, they displayed less threat as they tired: Rudiger’s golden chance in the 107th minute was arguably their last such opportunity after half-time.

Meanwhile, City had displayed their own powers of recovery. Guardiola altered the first leg with a half-time reshuffle and the second with a substitution. With 20 minutes remaining, he turned to the trickery of Jeremy Doku. A few minutes later, he had his reward. The livewire winger’s jinking run was followed by a cross the otherwise outstanding Rudiger blocked, but it fell obligingly for De Bruyne to lift his shot into the roof of the net.

The Belgian renewed acquaintances with Real and played with the air of a man possessed. He supplied enticing crosses and almost scored with a corner. He tested Lunin with a long-range effort in the first half and almost delivered a winner with a shot that just cleared the bar. Guardiola’s expression was one of disbelief; De Bruyne’s, too.

Yet clear-cut chances were rarities. Real were a team willing to defend, to park their egos for a cause. They will rarely spend as much time camped on the edge of their own box. They did so with the aid of Rudiger and the veteran captain Nacho, pressed into service by absences. He had a hair-raising moment when he was forced to clear off his own line after inadvertently dribbling the ball past Lunin but one of Real’s own showed a solidity. And Lunin, who began the tie by being embarrassed by Silva for the second-minute opener, completed his redemption in the shootout.

For the first time in four seasons, City will not be in the Champions League semi-finals. Yet again, Real will be.

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