Real Madrid 1-1 Man City: ‘If Erling Haaland doesn’t get you, Kevin de Bruyne will’
Real Madrid may be the greatest and most ruthless exponents of Champions League football but even they could not escape the reality that if Erling Haaland does not get you, then there is every chance Kevin de Bruyne will.
Haaland has been Manchester City’s headline act this season with 51 goals but De Bruyne remains the brilliant football brain behind this operation on the pitch, proving it again to give Pep Guardiola’s side a very creditable 1-1 draw in Champions League semi-final first leg at the Bernabeu.
There will be no more than quiet satisfaction in the City camp, though, after a job well done against the holders.
City know from painful experience how dangerous Real are at any point in a two-legged tie – just look at the same stage at the same venue last season when the Spanish side scored twice in stoppage time to level the scores and pave a path to ultimate victory over Liverpool in the final in Paris.
Carlo Ancelotti and his potent blend of youth and vast experience will still back themselves at Etihad Stadium in the return leg.
The joy for City and frustration for Real is that the Spaniards believed they had got the most difficult part right by keeping Haaland quiet, the Norwegian striker having only 21 touches on a night when he was peripheral, mainly through a combination of Antonio Rudiger’s physical presence and a superb saving tackle from David Alaba.
Not enough. Not with De Bruyne working his magic.
It was Haaland who dominated all the headlines in Madrid in the build-up, with one reading “Viene el Ogro” (The Ogre Is Coming).
Instead, it was Belgium midfielder De Bruyne, so often Haaland’s creator this season, who stepped up to leave this tie delicately balanced.
City were under pressure – rather like Real were when Vinicius Junior fired a long-range rocket past Ederson in the 36th minute for the opener – as De Bruyne took possession midway through the second half and struck a right-foot shot from 25 yards that was rattling off the back of the net before even a goalkeeper of Thibaut Courtois’ quality could intervene.
It was another special moment from a special player. De Bruyne is such a class act, and does it all with such apparent ease, that there is almost a danger he may not be fully appreciated outside Manchester City.
De Bruyne is a big player delivering on the big stage and City were thankful for his inspiration because it came as Real appeared to be up to their old trick of looking all at sea for the early stage of a major game before going on to win it.
City carried some psychological baggage into the Bernabeu after that traumatic 6-5 semi-final loss last season when they somehow fashioned defeat from victory.
They will now feel a measure of confidence about reaching their second Champions League final and securing their first win against either AC Milan or Inter Milan.
It will be a confidence heavily laced with caution, however, because only a fool would ever back with certainty against a Real Madrid team with such form for squeezing themselves out of the tightest situations and getting the job done.
City will have home advantage and are on a 21-match unbeaten run as they aim to replicate Manchester United’s 1999 Treble season when their city rivals won the Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup.
And they can feel real satisfaction at much of their performance in Madrid, from the domination of the early stages to how they managed the closing phase, although it needed a fine Ederson save to divert away substitute Aurelien Tchouameni’s powerful late effort.
The equation sounds simple. Win and off to Istanbul for the final.
It is just not quite as simple as that when the obstacle is a battle-hardened and streetwise Real Madrid marshalled by the tournament’s greatest coach, the four-time winner Ancelotti.
All City’s plans will be placed in this context. They are in a good position but they will confront a group of players and coach who simply believe winning the Champions League is always Real Madrid’s destiny.
Haaland may yet be “The Ogre” on what promises to be a superb semi-final second leg at Etihad Stadium but in the Bernabeu it was De Bruyne who delivered the stunning strike that may yet haunt Real Madrid.