Watching Pep Guardiola watch this Champions League semi-final thriller, in which a healthy first-leg lead appeared on for his Manchester City team at various points, was to witness a manager in the grip of agony.
He was incandescent when Riyad Mahrez lashed into the side-netting with Phil Foden on for the square pass in front of goal. That could have been 3-0 for City after 26 minutes.
Guardiola looked as if he wanted to curl up into a ball when Rúben Dias surrendered possession shortly afterwards and allowed Vinícius Júnior to run through, although the Real forward could not finish. City’s defending was unusually loose.
And what about the moment on 54 minutes, shortly after Foden had made it 3-1? Guardiola had expected a throwi-in for his team only for it to go the other way. He reacted by chasing after the fourth official to earn a yellow card. Vinícius would make it 3-2 almost immediately.
This is what City’s quest for a first Champions League does to the man who wants it, maybe needs it, more than anyone else. And, perhaps, it is also what playing against this Real team does to opponents. Facing them is like walking in a park with a lion on the loose. Fine, even quite enjoyable, thrilling. Then suddenly not fine. When Gabriel Jesus made it 2-0 in the 11th minute, it looked ridiculously easy for City. They could have been 4-0 up inside the opening half-hour. And yet at half-time the advantage was only 2-1, Karim Benzema having popped up to show his lethal edge.
City pushed again after the Vinícius goal. When Oleksandr Zinchenko was fouled by Toni Kroos, everybody seemed to stop – certainly Eduardo Camavinga and Dani Carvajal did. Bernardo Silva did not. With the referee, Istvan Kovacs, playing a smart advantage, the City midfielder arrowed a shot into the near, top corner and Guardiola could lose himself in delight.
It would not last, Real catching a break to rally again. Leaping for a high ball, Aymeric Laporte nodded it into his outstretched arm. Penalty. Nobody doubted that Benzema would convert but the Panenka, dinked up the middle, the disguise perfect, was audacity and composure from another plane. Benzema is the competition’s leading scorer with 14 while he has 41 goals in 41 appearances for Real this season. Guardiola slumped down on to a drinks cooler.
Real had been second best for long spells of the last-16 and quarter-final ties against Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea. Yet they found a way to get 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.
The final act had Dias stretching at Real’s far post to meet a cross only to fail to stretch enough. Guardiola went through his last set of contortions. In the heat of the moment it was possible to forget that City had actually beaten Spain’s champions-elect, outplaying them for long spells. They should have scored more goals. It is never a good thing to allow this opponent to fight another day.
It was City’s third European Cup semi-final whereas for Real it was number 31. Just enjoy it, Guardiola had told his players, and City did exactly that at the outset, drawing first blood after 93 seconds. Mahrez cut into a seam of space, jinking away from Luka Modric before picking out the late-breaking run of Kevin De Bruyne, who threw himself into the header with Carvajal – and then Thibaut Courtois – flailing.
The Etihad had been a strangely subdued place counting down to kick-off. Now it stirred and, when the second goal came, there was joy, even disbelief. Foden got away up the left and, when he found De Bruyne, the cross was whipped into the area. David Alaba tried to nip in front of Jesus to pinch possession, which felt risky, and he got it all wrong. When Jesus spun, 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 felt as if City were about to inflict grievous damage. Mahrez had to pass to Foden only to take on the shot – a bad decision – while Foden dragged wide of the far post after a fluent counterattack. Foden’s quick feet and velvet touch were an eye-catching feature.
The defensive jitters, though, were not exclusive to Real. The City goalkeeper, Ederson, played a couple of poor passes in the first half, inviting pressure, while Dias was caught on the ball more than once. Vinícius flickered, Alaba rose to flash a header wide and then Benzema scored with a controlled volley from Ferland Mendy’s cross.
Guardiola had to replace the injured John Stones, who filled in at 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 had allowed Mahrez to run through to curl against the far post. From the rebound Foden shot and Carvajal blocked.
But it was Fernandinho who was beaten and outpaced by Vinícius for 3-2, City’s defensive cover nowhere to be seen. Laporte and Mahrez missed big chances either side of Silva’s goal but the last word would go to Benzema.