Football: Manchester City miss a Real Champions League opportunity

Real forward Gareth Bale's (left) shot from a tight angle hits City midfielder Fernando (hidden) and loops over goalkeeper Joe Hart. It was the only goal in the Champions League semi-final tie, with both sides offering little up front in Madrid.
Real forward Gareth Bale's (left) shot from a tight angle hits City midfielder Fernando (hidden) and loops over goalkeeper Joe Hart. It was the only goal in the Champions League semi-final tie, with both sides offering little up front in Madrid.PHOTO: REUTERS

Ronaldo was not fully fit and Madrid were without Benzema but City couldn't capitalise

MADRID • The meek shall inherit the earth, but will not earn a place in the Champions League final.

Manchester City on Wednesday bowed out of Europe so tamely, showing the required fight and tempo only briefly, and Real Madrid calmly swatted them away 1-0 at the Bernabeu.

The Spanish giants advanced with the same aggregate score after the semi-final first-leg ended 0-0.

City manager Manuel Pellegrini spoke of having "no regrets".

"Of course if you don't reach the final you miss an opportunity," he said. "We played against a very strong team that wasn't better than us. You need a little bit of luck but that wasn't the reason we couldn't win the game. Tonight and the game we played at the Etihad we saw very equal teams."

 

When he leaves this summer, the Chilean can reflect with pride on steering City to their first Champions League semi-final. But he should also look back with regret at this missed opportunity.

He misguidedly trusted in Yaya Toure's fading strengths and the midfielder was largely anonymous, lacking the energy to join the front-running Sergio Aguero, an isolated figure easily patrolled by Sergio Ramos and Pepe.

By restoring Toure to the centre after injury, Pellegrini shuffled Kevin de Bruyne out to the left, where the Belgium attacker was less influential. He needed to be running at Ramos and Pepe for longer, assisting Aguero closer than Toure did.

Pellegrini believed in Jesus Navas even though the Spaniard runs in straight lines and tends to hit the first man with his crosses.

Raheem Sterling came on for half an hour, replacing Toure, and started running at his full-back, causing a few problems. Navas departed for Kelechi Iheanacho, who at least gave Aguero some company.

Pellegrini must regret that he did not turn up at the Bernabeu with a greater sense of adventure. He proved a point to the locals who questioned his calibre as a coach after a season at Real in 2009-10, finishing second to Barcelona in La Liga, being embarrassed by lowly Alcorcon in the King's Cup and tumbling early from Europe against Lyon.

This was a night to be bold, especially after falling behind to Fernando's own goal after 20 minutes, but City never attacked with much conviction.

Real were missing Karim Benzema and had Cristiano Ronaldo at three-quarter speed, yet they were hardly tested by City. Fernandinho struck a post. Aguero swept a shot over. That was it, really.

Real were hardly special. Luka Modric and Gareth Bale offered some artistry. But under Zinedine Zidane, Real have acquired a more pragmatic streak, and City lacked the invention to break down the two banks of four in the second half.

At the final whistle, it was Real heading to San Siro on May 28 to face neighbours Atletico Madrid in a repeat of the 2014 final. Ronaldo insisted Real deserved to go through.

"It was a tough game but I think we played better than City," he said.

Isco leapt on to Zidane, whose remarkable career now leads him to a final as a manager.

Zidane versus Diego Simeone is certainly a clash of styles, as players and managers. City, meanwhile, cannot wait for Pep Guardiola to arrive and begin the new era, leaving regrets behind.

THE TIMES, LONDON, THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 06, 2016, with the headline 'City squander real opportunity'. Print Edition | Subscribe