Here was a Champions League semifinal graced with two goals worthy of the occasion and precious little else. Yes, there was the odd sharp intake of breath, a scurry here and shuffle there, but this was nothing like the thunderous encounter it threatened to be a few minutes in. The intensity remained but the end product was only to be seen in magnificent flashes first from Vinicius Junior, then Kevin De Bruyne. Both were goals worthy of carrying their team to the biggest game in club football. They would have to be. These defenses were just too good to be beaten by anything but the very best.
This night brought with it a case for the great quality of soccer, that great offense does not necessarily beat great defense every time. Luka Modric and Bernardo Silva can weave as many elegant patterns as they like but if the offside traps hold firm, the tackles are made and the goalkeepers stand firm, defense can just about carry the day. Neither Madrid nor City could make it as far as a clean sheet but both left their opponent with only one route to goal: the simply magical.
That is what both sides delivered just once, offering their unique take on the long-range golazo. Madrid’s invigorating counter attack began when Modric drew Rodri up the pitch and took him out of the game with one flicked pass. The irrepressible Eduardo Camavinga charged up the pitch, Vinicius taking a touch to get the ball out from his feet and somehow cannoning the ball into the top corner with a stroke of his right boot.
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City had been probing for the half hour that preceded the opener, their press locking the hosts in the deepest recesses of their Bernabeu bunker. And yet that territorial dominance had hardly been translated into the overwhelming shot count that Pep Guardiola’s side tend to register. For the most part, they found themselves limited to long-range punts, much as Madrid did at the other end.
Even the marauding Erling Haaland found himself becalmed by the combined efforts of Antonio Rudiger, the wind-up merchant unleashed, and the more reactive David Alaba. He might have had seven touches in the penalty box but only a handful were in the area in line with the goal where he could really force a dangerous shot on Thibaut Courtois’ goal. You could say the same for Karim Benzema, whose only moment of real menace came after a fantastic five-pass move involving Vinicius and Dani Carvajal. Even that act of breathtaking intricacy was not enough to get clear of the City defense, John Stones scrambling back in time to deflect the ball over the bar.
Unlike their visitors, Madrid were perfectly prepared to sit in a low block, allow City to play in front of them and funnel the through balls to the least dangerous areas of the penalty area. It was perhaps the best option they had to quell the relentless force of the Premier League leaders but it was hardly without its risks. De Bruyne’s trio of shots might have carried a combined expected goal (xG) value of 0.15 but that does not fully reflect the threat that he posed from range. The Belgian is as clean a striker of the ball as anyone in the sport. As Jack Grealish put it, “you wouldn’t choose anyone else for it to fall to.”
De Bruyne hardly needed the space Modric allowed him from 20 yards out, the sort that turns low value xG pre-shot into something altogether more menacing. He certainly exploited it though, winding up a shot of such ferocity as to leave the net in mortal peril. For the third time in as many years, City’s greatest player had delivered for them in a Champions League semifinal. If he had not found a way tonight perhaps no one would have.
Which is not to say that City were in any way inferior to their usual self, that Guardiola had flubbed his team selection as he is so often accused of at this stage of the tournament. Perhaps Stones slowed down play in midfield when City needed more zip but that aside his 11 best players delivered a performance of discipline, organization and neat interplay. It just was not enough to break down Madrid, who ran into the exact same issues at the other end of the field.
For now, then this tie remains on a knife edge. It will take something special indeed to prise these two apart. Fortunately for the viewing public, however, both of these sides have proven themselves to be eminently capable of delivering just that.