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Two big-spending favorites reached the Champions League semifinals, but it was far from plain sailing as Real Madrid needed some hat-trick heroics from Cristiano Ronaldo while Manchester City made history against a lackluster Paris Saint-Germain side to make the final four for the first time in club history.
Real Madrid needed all three of Ronaldo's goals–two of which came one after the other in the 16th and 17th minutes–to overcome a shock 2-0 first-leg loss to Wolfsburg in Germany and win 3-2 on aggregate, while City relied on a late Kevin De Bruyne strike to finish off a PSG side shorthanded by suspension, also on a 3-2 aggregate score.
Here is what caught our eye, with half of the Champions League semifinals set:
Player of the day: Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid
There was confidence in Madrid that the team would overturn the first leg deficit against Wolfsburg, and that skyrocketed when Ronaldo scored twice in the opening 17 minutes. His first was a tap-in at the far post after Dani Carvajal’s cross somehow eluded the back line. His second was a powerful glanced header from Toni Kroos’s corner. At that stage it looked like a matter of when and not if Madrid would score again.
But Wolfsburg had other thoughts, and the tie was still in the balance 50 minutes later. Sergio Ramos had gone close with a header that hit the post and ran along the goal line. Enter the record-breaking Ronaldo, whose tallies took him past 45 goals for the season for a sixth straight year.
The moment of magic came on 70 minutes when Ronaldo curled in his hat-trick goal through the Wolfsburg wall and past Diego Benaglio. The Bernabeu crowd chanted, "Ronaldo! Ronaldo!" at him, a far cry from the boos and jeers he faced earlier this season. Such is life in the Spanish capital.
Ronaldo has now scored 16 goals in 10 European games this season. And with him in this form, Real Madrid remains alive in its quest for an 11th European championship.
Goal of the day: Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester City
The Belgian midfielder scored last week in Paris and scored an even more important goal at the Etihad, curling a shot past Kevin Trapp with 15 minutes left to play to send Manchester City into the semifinals for the first time in its history. This was De Bruyne’s fourth goal in five games since coming back from a two-month injury layoff and you cannot help but wonder where City might be in the Premier League title race had De Bruyne stayed fit.
As it is, it has gone further than ever before in Europe and last summer’s big-money signing has made the difference.
Takeaway of the day: Blanc’s tactical experiment flopped
As soon as the team sheets were handed in at Manchester City, French fans were reminded of the last time PSG coach Laurent Blanc made a big call in a knockout situation. That was in the Euro 2012 quarterfinal, and it came after two years of Blanc fashioning the France team into a mini-Spain focused on possession and passing. When the Spain game came around, though, Blanc went hyper-defensive, picking two right backs, Anthony Reveillere and Mathieu Debuchy, to counter the threat of Andres Iniesta.
Within 20 minutes, the plan had failed: Iniesta threaded a pass to Jordi Alba, who skipped past a diving Debuchy, found enough space from Reveillere to cross for Xabi Alonso, on his 100th appearance for Spain, to head in the opener in yards of space. Spain won the game 2-0 and its best attacks came from its right wing, mainly because Iniesta kept on popping up there.
Things were not quite as bad for Blanc and PSG at the Etihad, but his team selection for this game shocked everyone: he eschewed the 4-3-3 system he has played for the last two years and went for a three-man defense with wingbacks.
It seemed a bit much for Serge Aurier, who was surprisingly recalled to the starting lineup last week. Aurier popped up on the right and left side of the center backs, and in the first half gave the ball away far too often. He gave the ball away to Jesus Navas who curled a shot wide.
Aurier was not so lucky on the half-hour mark, as his loose ball allowed Aguero to run through in the area and goalkeeper Kevin Trapp brought him down. As Aguero was running away from goal, Trapp was shown a yellow card. Aguero stepped up to take the ensuing penalty, but Trapp pointed to his right and dived left, and Aguero proceeded to but his ball wide of the post.
With Blaise Matuidi suspended and Marco Verratti out injured, there was always going to be pressure on Blanc to make a big call on how to approach PSG’s biggest match of the season.
The injury of Thiago Motta just before halftime made up Blanc’s mind for him. Marquinhos pushed into midfield and PSG went to a back four. That left Aurier, a right back, playing at center back.
PSG promised it would not be as poor as it was last week, but if anything it played worse. Joe Hart made some excellent stops, from two Zlatan Ibrahimovic free kicks, a Thiago Silva effort and a late Edinson Cavani one-on-one–but essentially this was a below-par PSG side that made life surprisingly easy for City. It’s now four straight quarterfinal exits in a row for PSG and Blanc can expect a rough ride from his local press in the next few days. Ibrahimovic is set to leave the club this summer, while Maxwell and Motta could follow him. This PSG squad is ready for a rebuild. No one, not even Blanc, will be safe after this setback.
Can Real Madrid or Manchester City lift the trophy?
The last time Pep Guardiola agreed to join a team before the end of the season, it was Bayern Munich, and the German side went on to win the league, domestic cup and Champions League treble in 2013. The semifinal draw may well pit Pep’s present–if Bayern gets past Benfica on Wednesday–against his future, but even more intriguing is the prospect of City going all the way.
The reason that City’s board has gone for Guardiola is because it felt that Manuel Pellegrini was not the man to lead the club to success in Europe. Admittedly it was helped here by a woeful PSG performance, but with a game-changer like De Bruyne to call upon, Pellegrini has a chance of improving on his last Champions League semifinal appearance, when his Villarreal side lost to Arsenal in 2006. That said, City is expected to be the outsider of the four teams left standing.
As for Real Madrid, reaching the semifinal was the minimum requirement for Zinedine Zidane, whose position on the bench for next season, after this result and beating Barcelona at Camp Nou last week, should now be secure. Despite needing to win by three goals, Zidane stuck with Casemiro as a holding midfielder and was rewarded with another smart performance. But Madrid did have its wobbles after drawing level and there were moments when Wolfsburg could have struck. Without ever truly convincing, the 10-time European champion is back in the last four. The front three is talented enough to win it, but you can't help but think that against Barcelona or Bayern Munich, it won't go any further.