Manchester City facing a Real Madrid team full of belief after an epic at the Etihad

Real have already enjoyed some magical nights in the Champions League, and their fans are dreaming of one more next week after an incredible semi-final first leg

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Every step towards the Champions League title that should, sooner or later, endorse Manchester City’s status as one of the very finest teams of the 21st century feels like a coming of age. But in this tumultuous season, those steps seem to be on an escalator moving at breakneck speed.

The bruises from a tight, combative quarter-final against an aggressive Atletico Madrid had barely healed before Tuesday's wild, seven-goal semi-final against Real Madrid left every neutral hoping for something equally epic in next week’s second leg.

The most seasoned observer of European Cup dramas at the Etihad stadium, Carlo Ancelotti, believes that is unlikely. The Madrid head coach certainly hopes that several aspects of City’s 4-3 win, especially Madrid’s lax marking, are not repeated at the Bernabeu.

Ancelotti has played or managed in close to 200 European Cup matches and known few with such a rollercoaster quality. “It’s hard to see the second leg being like the first,” said the Italian, whose chief dread would be that City’s finishing matches up with the quality and number of chances they created in the tie’s first 90 minutes.

“We’ll fight to make it another magical night,” Ancelotti promised madridistas who dream of seeing Madrid clinch the Liga title this weekend - a point at home to Espanyol will be enough - and, four days later, mount yet another comeback in a European Cup knockout tie.

The dazzling recovery to win 3-2, from 2-0 down with half an hour left against Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16, fuels their belief. So does the see-saw victory against Chelsea, who led the quarter-final with 15 minutes of normal time remaining ahead of Karim Benzema scoring his seventh goal in the space of three European games to put Madrid through.

Make that nine Benzema goals now, in four Champions League matches with the pair he scored at the Etihad. Madrid never truly believe they are out of a game while they have the best, and most confident centre-forward in the competition and the one Madrid player who would be guaranteed a place in City’s line-up.

As Guardiola analyses the goalscoring chances that Riyad Mahrez, Aymeric Laporte and Phil Foden did not turn into a scoreline that might have sent City to the second leg with lead of perhaps four goals, he will find it hard not to ask himself if Benzema would have converted most of them, and answering: ‘Yes, he would’.

Foden still had a superb night, even if he will regret side-footing a ricochet off the Madrid post directly at Dani Carvajal with most of the goalmouth unmanned early in the second half when City were leading 2-1. Foden added their third soon enough, with a header from a Fernandinho cross - not a typical type of goal from the wiry Foden. But then again, it is becoming Foden’s habit to show off new parts of his wide repertoire in the most demanding matches.

Against Atletico in the previous round, he revealed his rugged, stoic streak as he was systematically targeted by an opposition intent on provoking a loss of temper. That night, Foden played unlike a footballer who is only 21. Against Real, he offered a reminder that City, who are closing in on the signing of Erling Haaland, may soon be able to field not one but two of football’s most gifted 21-year-olds.

Into which category, Madrid’s Vinicius Junior would also have to be listed. The most brilliant virtuoso goal of a breathtaking evening was his, at the end of a jet-heeled run begun in Madrid’s half of the pitch with an impudent dummy to escape Fernandinho, whose 36-year-old legs were never going to catch up with him.

Fernandinho, set to leave Manchester this summer after nine years of excellent service, has likely played his last minutes as a makeshift right-back. It was a position he was obliged to fill after Kyle Walker’s tender ankle, Joao Cancelo’s suspension and John Stones’ withdrawal after 36 minutes, had left Guardiola without three surer candidates for the role.

City at least will have a far greater complement of specialist full-backs available for the defence of their one-goal lead. “We have to go to the Bernabeu with our heads up,” said Guardiola. “We played a fantastic game against an incredible team.”

Updated: April 27, 2022, 2:23 PM
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