Tuesday April 26th, 2016

Sixty years Manchester City has waited for a European semifinal, and that was it? An anti-climactic Champions League stalemate leaves the club's series with Real Madrid finely poised ahead of the second leg, but not for the first time, City found Europe’s premier competition a little underwhelming. But for two excellent late saves from Joe Hart, it might have been a lot worse than that.

This was supposed to be a banner night for the club. There were flags on the seats and the atmosphere was notably rowdier than many Champions League ties at the Etihad have been–although the tournament anthem was booed no less lustily than it always is by City fans. But with Cristiano Ronaldo ruled out with a thigh injury and Real Madrid adopting a more conservative approach than usual, the game never got going.

Troublingly for City, after a first half in which it could reasonably claim to have been in control, Madrid looked much more like the dangerous side in the final quarter of the game. It wasn’t just Hart who thwarted them; Vincent Kompany, too, had an excellent match, showing just why his calf injuries have so unsettled City.

Planet Futbol
Joe Hart clutch in Manchester City's 0-0 draw with Real Madrid

City has blown hot and cold for the past two seasons, but here its pressing was excellent from the opening. Squeezing the play like that can never work if it’s not a coordinated team effort, but Fernandinho was notably ferocious. That disrupted Real Madrid, but for a long time it seemed that City lacked the quality to take advantage of the ball when it was won, as though the high tempo required for the press was affecting its mentality with the ball as well.

Gradually, City settled, and while clear-cut chances remained elusive, it did at least begin to win free kicks in dangerous areas and begin to get crosses into the box. Zinedine Zidane was exercised enough to–again–split his trousers with an overly vigorous gesticulation on the touchline.

Not for the first time this season, though, City was left to rue the delivery of Jesus Navas. Manager Manuel Pellegrini has always been a fan of Navas, presumably respecting his pace and willingness to work up and down, but it’s had to imagine Pep Guardiola will be so forgiving of his wastefulness in possession next season.

The fact that Raheem Sterling seems to barely have entered Pellegrini’s thoughts since the return of Kevin De Bruyne suggests how indifferent his form has been since his own comeback from injury. It was even more revealing that when David Silva succumbed to a thigh injury just after the half hour, he was replaced not by Sterling but by 19-year-old Nigerian forward Kelechi Iheanacho, whose previous Champions League experience has been limited to two last-minute substitute appearances. Sterling did finally come on for Navas with 14 minutes remaining.

It would be wrong to say Madrid looked rattled–Toni Kroos completed 43 out of 43 passes in the first half–but it was short of fluency and, without Ronaldo, lacked the counterattacking threat it can possess. Not until the final minute of the first half did either side manage a shot. Pepe cut the ball back for Karim Benzema, whose shot flew several stories over the bar. The striker, who picked up a calf injury on Saturday and was a doubt for the game, went off at halftime and was replaced by Jese.

The second half was a little more open, but only a little. Sergio Aguero, after a quiet first half, had a fine chance in the 46th minute, peeling off Pepe to create space for a pass. Fernandinho’s throughball was lacking a touch of pace, which led to the ball getting caught rather under his feet, and he ended up scooping his shot just over the bar.

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But the longer the game went on, the more dangerous Madrid looked as Gareth Bale and Luka Modric began to become more influential. Sergio Ramos put a free header from a corner just over, Jese looped a header against the bar and then came two superb saves from Hart. First he kicked away a Casemiro header from a corner and then, as another ball fell to Pepe four yards from goal, he spread himself magnificently to make a point-blank block.

In only seven previous games this season had Madrid failed to score, so denying Zidane’s side an away goal must be considered a major positive. But City paid late on for the intensity of its early pressing and that perhaps suggests its approach next week will have to be more measured.

No away side has scored at the Bernabeu in the Champions League, but Wolfsburg, Roma and Paris Saint-Germain all spurned presentable chances. City will have opportunities, and if it could take one, it would have an away-goals advantage. The way Madrid finished the game, though, suggested that with Ronaldo back, it probably remains favorite to progress. To only draw when Madrid was without Ronaldo for 90 minutes and without Ronaldo and Benzema for 45 feels like a missed opportunity.

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