Having played the first leg of this last-16 tie some 164 days ago not knowing whether they would return to this rarefied level next season, Manchester City are now potentially a fortnight away from the first of what could be many Champions League titles. Pep Guardiola’s side will travel to next week’s mini-tournament in Lisbon and will be favourites to triumph outright after overcoming Real Madrid, this storied competition’s most successful club, 4-2 on aggregate.
It was not only Zinedine Zidane’s first failure as a manager in a two-legged Champions League tie but City’s greatest European achievement of the Abu Dhabi era, certainly on-the-pitch at least. This is a club still revelling in their successful appeal of a two-year ban from this competition at the Court of Arbitration for Sport last month, but no judicial process can inspire the delight which met Gabriel Jesus’ second-half goal which assured City of a place in the quarter-finals against Olympique Lyonnais last week.
Madrid had arrived as newly-crowned champions of La Liga, transformed by Zidane since their 2-1 first leg defeat in February and believing they could perform one of their historic remontadas of the past, but those all came at the Bernabeu. In their 118-year history, for all their many medals and mythologies, they had only overturned a home first-leg defeat in the 1970-71 Cup Winners’ Cup against Wacker Innsbruck.
Sharing the full story, not just the headlines
Doing so again, even at an empty Etihad Stadium, always felt unlikely and Raheem Sterling’s early goal punctured any realistic hopes, even if Karim Benzema responded with a deft header not long after. Zidane’s side were otherwise off-the-pace and fell victim to City’s ferocious pressing, with no player struggling more than Raphael Varane. Considered one of the world’s leading centre-halves, he was hassled and harried by Jesus on both goals and ultimately at fault.
Zidane also fell well short of expectations, decisively losing the tactical battle. It would not be Guardiola in the Champions League knock-out stages if he did not make one decision that could be described as clever, and perhaps too clever. The fact that he employed a false nine was not much of a shock, given that he did the same in the first leg at the Bernabeu and popularised the role in the modern era with one Lionel Messi, but few expected Phil Foden to be on the job.
It was a mark of how far the 20-year-old has come, particularly since the restart, and though he would later become the first player to substituted as City chased a goal to secure their place in the last eight, his willingness to drop deep in the breathless opening stages spread indecision among Madrid’s defence like wildfire. Still, the first goal – like most of City’s best chances throughout the evening – came not from a tactical tweak but a basic and preventable Madrid error.
Varane’s first mistake was to think he had time and space to collect Thibaut Courtois’ simple pass inside his own penalty area, but was oblivious to Jesus’s breath on his right shoulder. It was at that point which Sergio Ramos, suspended but sitting among the Madrid substitutes in two-thirds of a three-piece suit, shouted ‘puta!’. He knew it was already too late.
Jesus muscled Varane off the ball and squared for Sterling to convert his 100th career goal in City colours, tapping his finish past the sliding Militao, which left Madrid needing three to win. The noise generated by City’s team of analysts – watching from the back of the Colin Bell Stand – came close to making up for the 55,000 absent fans. But if they thought the job was done, they were wrong.
If any player could pick Madrid up off the canvas, it was Benzema. Zidane’s top scorer has at least twice as many goals as all of his team-mates this season, but that fact alone was not enough for Joao Cancelo to ensure he defended Rodrygo’s right-wing cross. The ball flew over the makeshift left-back’s head and onto Benzema’s, with the low header bouncing out of Ederson’s reach.
With the scores level on the night, Madrid settled down but not nearly enough. Courtois’ loose pass into the feet of Kevin De Bruyne presented Foden with the opportunity to turn and shoot from the edge of the penalty area on the cusp of half time. Even though he took one touch too many, the youngster still skimmed the ball an inch wide of Courtois’ left-hand post.
It was a let-off, another wake-up call, but even as Madrid dominated the opening exchanges once both teams re-emerged, Varane was still slumbering. His second mistake of the evening was even more costly than the first. Rodri’s effort to turn the visiting defence with a long pass was not successful, though neither was Varane’s two attempts at a header back to his goalkeeper. He fumbled his first try then under-hit his second, allowing Jesus to race through and loop a finish around the onrushing Courtois.
For City, the tension eased as an ultimately comfortable victory came into sight. From Madrid, there was no response and no remontada. Varane hung his head. Ramos, whistling and hollering all night up to that point, fell strangely quiet. Guardiola and his players meanwhile had secured City’s biggest scalp on the European stage, for the next week or two at least.