Can City slay the dragon at its den?
The scoreline had read 4-3 in Manchester City's favour with the away-goal factor no longer in play. And yet, as the players made their way to the dugout at the Etihad Stadium eight days back, the feeling was that Real Madrid have had the last laugh after a roller-coaster 90 minutes of one of the most enthralling first-leg Champions League knockout games in recent memory.
From the dreary expression of City coach Pep Guardiola, the apparent exhaustion on his players' faces to the home fans' mellowed out cheers -- all indicated City's repentance for not being able to slay the dragon when it was down and out, combined with their fear of facing the wrath at its den, Santiago Bernabeu, in about a week's time.
When a team find Real Madrid on tenterhooks, not only should they go for the kill -- they must ensure it. City were up by two goals inside 11 minutes and could have added two more in the next 20 had Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden not squandered golden opportunities.
Despite leading 2-0 and being on the driving seat, those couple of misses had Guardiola extremely animated at the dugout. The experienced Catalan coach's grunts, angst and occasional screams were proven to not be overreactions as four minutes after Foden's miss, a certain French forward arrived on the occasion. Karim Benzema, with the Midas touch this season, somehow managed to hit a first-time volley under the tightest of markings to leave City keeper Ederson with no chance.
Real would come back in the game twice after that -- courtesy of Vinicius Junior's dummy followed by a sensational solo run down the left flank and Benzema's audacious panenka from the spot -- to keep the score-line deficit to one while the home side continued to miss most of their chances.
By the time the referee blew the final whistle, City were, as if, already feeling the heat of the adage that '90 minutes at the Bernabeu is a very long time'. The star-studded Paris Saint-Germain certainly did in the Round of 16 when, despite being 2-0 up till the first half of the second leg, a 17-minute hat-trick by Benzema turned the tie around its head. Reigning champions Chelsea felt it as well in the quarterfinal as, once again, moments of individual brilliance -- from Luka Modric and Benzema -- undid all of Thomas Tuchel's efforts in the dying minutes of the game.
Moments of sheer individual brilliance -- that's what Real have been thriving on this entire season. If Los Blancos' season is analysed, the result would indicate that they should not have been where they are now -- champions of La Liga with ease and bidding for their 14th UCL title. There is an apparent lack of depth and quality in defence while the cohesion of the entire team is questionable at times.
However, what Real do have is a few brief spells in a game under their belt and they have been incredible at capitalising on them, almost on every occasion. If sometimes it is Benzema's otherworldly headers and volleys, the other times it is the raw pace of Vinicius or the sublime quality of Modric and Toni Kroos in the midfield -- Los Blancos have repeatedly found their way when chips were down.
'Can they do it again?' - is the question that has been asked ahead of almost each of Los Blancos' matches in Europe this season. The same goes for this tie as well. Because, if we go by how it looks on paper, Real would still have to bring their A-game to dismantle this compact City side, firing on all cylinders consistently.
In fact, the blue half of Manchester would be further boosted by the return of full-backs Joao Cancelo and Kyle Walker for tonight's mega clash as they return from suspension and injury, respectively. That means Vinicius would probably not be able to totally outpace Walker in the left flank as he did against Fernandinho in the first leg. Also, Thibaut Courtois might not be able to contain the flurry of attacks that City will be offering with the usual efficiency that he has done the entire season.
And yet, Real would have the mental edge going into this tie, as they historically do. With La Liga already in the bag, their sole focus for a while has been the Champions League, a tournament that they are the masters of. To put things into perspective: this is Real's 33rd UCL semi-final compared to City's third.
For City, to play as well as they did at the Etihad will be tougher. However, Guardiola's men would probably still have the majority of the possession, create the most chances and even score goals in the first few attempts. In all likelihood though, the result of the tie could ultimately boil down to how City will dance to the tunes when the home side assert their signature, intimidating momentum in the game. It would be intriguing to see how City respond when Vinicius starts running at full speed, Benzema is making space in the final third and Modric is sprinting his way up from defence while looking for gaps in the City defence to pierce.
Will Guardiola's men be able to thwart Real's individual quality or will they flounder thinking they could have averted this eight days ago? Or, will Real need someone from among their ranks with yet another inspiring performance to pull them through?
Whichever way it may pan out, one thing is certain the fans will have to be on the edge of their seats tonight as they might be in for witnessing another captivating contest.