For the second time in three seasons there will be an all-Madrid Champions League final after Real Madrid brushed off Manchester City in a weirdly lackluster semifinal. After a goalless draw in the first leg, the game was settled by an own goal from Fernando after 20 minutes. That was far from the worst damage City did to itself on a night on which it could have easily been hammered.
Madrid never approached its best, but it was still far too good for an insipid City. Again and again over the past two seasons, Manuel Pellegrini’s side has produced these bloodless displays, but the assumption was always that it was an issue of application. That was never an excuse, but in a Champions League semifinal, it seems unlikely it’s the explanation.
City had waited 60 years to get into a Champions League semifinal–albeit it’s only felt like a major absence over the past four seasons–but having got there, it barely turned up. It’s hard to encapsulate just how bad a performance this was.
There was no intensity, no imagination, no movement, no life. At times Madrid simply walked through City, particularly exploiting the space between Gael Clichy and Eliaquim Mangala, who came on after nine minutes for Vincent Kompany. The City captain, having been rested for Sunday’s defeat at Southampton, lasted just eight minutes before pulling up with what appeared to be a groin injury, the 33rd injury since he joined the club in 2008.
When City did get the ball, there was no pace to its attacking, no urgency. Sergio Aguero was left isolated. Jesus Navas ran down blind alleys. Kevin De Bruyne was barely involved. The decision to start Yaya Toure rapidly looked misguided as he lumbered about, never getting tight enough. Nicolas Otamendi, meanwhile, was repeatedly slow to push out, destabilizing City’s attempts to play an offside trap.
City had looked relatively comfortable, although the Kompany injury clearly disrupted its rhythm, when Madrid struck after 20 minutes. For City it was a gallingly sloppy goal to concede. It had numbers back, but Luka Modric found Dani Carvajal behind De Bruyne and his pass bypassed Clichy to find Bale, who had gotten away from Fernando. His shot flicked the Brazilian midfielder and looped at great pace over Joe Hart and in off the inside of the post.
The oddity was what followed. With the tie finely poised, a certain amount of feeling-out is only to be expected, but the phoney war went on. It almost felt as though City was anxious of being hammered and settled for a narrow defeat. There was an almost complete absence of what Brian Clough used to call “morale courage”–not enough players wanted to make something happen.
City never pressed with any aggression, certainly by comparison with the away games against Dynamo Kyiv and Paris Saint-Germain, and, other than a couple of Cristiano Ronaldo snap-shots and a Pepe effort from a free kick that was rightly rule out for offside, Madrid didn’t offer much either before halftime.
Perhaps the home side simply felt in control.
Isco, Modric and Toni Kroos had complete command of the center, passing around Fernandinho and Toure. Yet the first time City did get at Madrid, in the final minute of the half, it showed it could cause problems. De Bruyne, having drifted centrally, worked the ball out to Fernandinho, who swept inside past Carvajal and drilled a low shot against the outside of the post.
All that remained was for Madrid to finish the game off. Hart made an excellent block from Modric after Bale’s chip had strung the offside trap, and he then made two saves from Cristiano Ronaldo, who looked far from 100% fit. Hart had some help from the woodwork when Bale headed against the bar.
The thought slowly began to grow that Madrid might be punished for its profligacy. With seven minutes to go Lucas Vazquez committed a horrible shin-high challenge on Raheem Sterling, for which he was fortunate only to be booked and not sent off. From wide on the left, perhaps three yards from the goal line, De Bruyne mystifyingly chose to shoot on the ensuring free kick and hit the side netting. With two minutes to go, Aguero at last worked a shooting chance but fired a yard over.
But it was all far too late–and if City had somehow stolen a victory on the away goals rule, it would have been robbery, plain and simple. Real Madrid may not have conceded a goal at the Bernabeu in the Champions League this season, but there are weaknesses at the back. City barely even tried to exploit it, instead sitting off and watching Madrid do what it is excellent at: passing through midfield.
Madrid will dream of a record 11th European crown, but Atletico, chasing its first and revenge for defeat in the final two years ago, will be a much, much sterner test.