MANCHESTER — A 0-0 draw played out at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday as Manchester City and Real Madrid’s UEFA Champions League semifinal tie is balanced on a knife edge.
City started brightly and dominated the first half but Real grew into the game and hit the bar through Jese, while Joe Hart kept City in it with two superb stops late on.
It was a tight, tense encounter on a banner night for Man City. Everything is still to play for ahead of the second leg at the Santiago Bernabeu next Wednesday.
Here’s what we learned from the Etihad.
HART HALTS REAL
Joe Hart didn’t have much to do for the opening 78 minutes but then he proved just how good he is. Hart first stopped Casemiro with his foot as his low header looked destined to go in.
Then three minutes later Hart went one better. His stop from Pepe was world class. After Gareth Bale‘s flicked header somehow found the Portuguese defender unmarked, five-yards out, Hart stood tall and did his best sprawling starfish impression as the ball cannoned off his chest and out. It was a stunning stop and City’s fans celebrated by singing “England’s No. 1!” There has been talk about Hart not being Pep Guardiola’s cup of tea and City’s incoming boss may look elsewhere next season.
Sure, Hart has dropped some clangers over the years but if you add up his mistakes and top-class saves — like the second one he produced at a pivotal moment of a UCL semifinal — I guarantee he’s in the plus column in his career. The 29-year-old seems like he’s been around forever and with performances like this on the biggest stage in City’s history as a club, he delivered,big time, to keep them level in the tie. If Real had scored an away goal it would have made this tie so much tougher.
A 1-0 deficit or worse would’ve been harsh on City. Thanks to Hart they go to Madrid next week with everything to play for and overall it was a memorable night at the Etihad as the home fans and owner Sheikh Mansour realized a dream. Having Real visit the Etihad and go home happy with a draw shows just how far they’ve advanced as a club.
In the first half City’s central midfield duo of Fernando and Fernandinho were especially on point. The Brazilian duo closed down Real’s midfield every time they received it with Toni Kroos and Luka Modric stifled.
Not only did Fernando and Fernandinho shut down the man with the ball but as soon as he was played it backwards or sideways they would charge out and stop Real’s defenders from having any time to regroup. It was relentless pressure, something which worked extremely well for them against Paris Saint-Germain in the last round and again on Tuesday.
Predictably they couldn’t keep that pressure up for the entire 90 minutes with Real making a switch at half time to bring Jese into the game for the static, and quite frankly 60 percent fit, Karim Benzema. Real’s full backs were allowed more space in the second half with Kroos and Modric getting on the ball more, but they only had luck out wide because the Brazilian duo of Fernando and Fernandinho locked midfield down. City looked solid in the central areas with Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi benefiting from a Brazilian shield in front of them.
RONALDO’S ABSENCE KEY
We knew Cristiano Ronaldo was struggling with a thigh injury but the three-time World Player of the Year was expected to still start on Tuesday. He didn’t even make the bench. Zinedine Zidane said this about Ronaldo and Benzema on the eve of the game.
“They have recovered really well, they are 100 per cent, we will test them, but the idea is that they will play,” Zidane said. “They have got to be 100 per cent fit to play, but I think they will be. We will see how they go in training but they are players who look after themselves physically and my idea is that they are both going to be fit to play.”
Just how did 31-year-old Ronaldo go from being 100 percent to not even being on the bench in 24 hours? As for Benzema, he was hooked off at half time after hardly touching the ball and his only effort of note was a shot he almost stuck in the second tier of seating.
Real grew into the game and finished the stronger of the two teams with Jese’s header, Bale going close and forcing Hart into two fine saves. They’ll be happy enough knowing they don’t have a 2-0 deficit to overturn like they did in the quarterfinal against Wolfsburg and at the Santiago Bernabeu they will fancy beating any team in the world. We don’t know the full extent of Ronaldo’s injury but it seems certainly the all-time leading scorer in the UCL will be back for the second leg.
One of City’s fans summed up it best on the train heading into Manchester before Tuesday’s game. Ronaldo led an incredible Real comeback against City at the Bernabeu in 2012 as the home side were 2-1 down heading into the final minutes and then won 3-2.
“He scared the s*** out of us every time he got the ball,” said the City fan. He’ll probably do the same next week, if he’s fit, and that could be the difference in this tie.
BONUS: Zidane also manage to split his trousers for a second-straight Champions League game. Can anybody help the Real Madrid and France legend out!?