LONDON • Joe Hart was the last Manchester City player off the field in the 0-0 draw with Real Madrid in their Champions League semi-final first-leg clash, and many of the home fans had stayed on to applaud his journey towards the tunnel.
City's goalkeeper made two vital saves to ensure Manuel Pellegrini's side head to the Bernabeu next week in good heart. Hart has matured into one of the world's best, learning from his peers, studying opposing strikers and analysing his own performances intently.
His first save from Casemiro's downward header was good, but his second was extraordinary.
When Pepe controlled Gareth Bale's header at a corner, Real fans nearby prepared to celebrate a priceless away goal.
Pepe's second touch, a powerful strike with his left foot, sent the ball flying goalwards but Hart had spread himself, and the ball crashed into his midriff and clear. Pepe should really have scored, but it was still a reminder of how Hart can make saves against top clubs.
It took a while for Hart to be tested. This was a largely disappointing game with City wary of conceding an away goal and Real seemingly confident of their prowess at the Bernabeu, especially when Cristiano Ronaldo could be back.
I don't think they are favourites... We are not afraid to go to Bernabeu and we will see which team plays better.
MANUEL PELLEGRINI, exuding confidence after the goal-less draw in the first leg.
They missed him at the Etihad Stadium. Ruled out with injury before kick-off, Ronaldo watched a match so lacking in incident that Zinedine Zidane splitting his trousers kept the TV commentators going for at least half an hour.
No doubt Ronaldo would tell us it would all have been different if he had been fit to play. "I will wait for the next game," he told reporters.
The absence of the Portuguese had immediately lifted the mood among City supporters. Hope grew. Flags waved. City fans whipped up quite an atmosphere.
Sadly, the first half struggled to match the expectations. This was the slowest of slow burners. Midfield was so squeezed. Neither goalkeeper, Hart nor Keylor Navas, was troubled for 50 minutes. Neither team managed a shot on target until the second period.
Tony Cascarino's talking points
RONALDO A REAL MISS
Real Madrid just did not look the same in attack without the injured Cristiano Ronaldo. In their defence, they get little practice without the Portuguese in their line-up because he tends to play the whole 90 minutes and he is very rarely injured. In the first half, he would probably have had four chances, even in a fairly dire game. He left a huge void.
FULL-BACKS STAYED BACK
The biggest sign of how the two teams were setting out with a conservative approach was that both pairs of full-backs made little attempt to push forward beyond the halfway line. Marcelo and Dani Carvajal are renowned for their attacking threat at Real, yet they held back to support the central defenders.
BALE HAS TO STEP FORWARD
Gareth Bale needs to start taking games by the scruff of the neck. In the last round, Real faced a two-goal deficit against Wolfsburg and Ronaldo responded by scoring a hat-trick to take them through. Bale was bought to be a match-winner on a regular basis. Matching Ronaldo's scoring tallies is too much to ask, but he should be looking to get 30-odd goals per season.
THE RIGHT GAMBLE
It was a brave but sensible move by City manager Manuel Pellegrini to send on Kelechi Iheanacho when David Silva hobbled off injured before half-time. It meant City had two strikers, which left them slightly more vulnerable, but you cannot go to the Bernabeu after drawing 0-0 at home and expect to progress.
GEARING UP FOR 2ND LEG
Real Madrid seemed to get the feeling as the night wore on that they were simply a better team than City and, accordingly, they started to push forward and look for a result. They took control of the match from early in the second half. Spaces opened up and the chances began to follow. You worry what will happen in the second leg in Madrid, because Real have another level to go up to. City just did not give them any problems at home and they now face a tough trip to Spain.
THE TIMES, LONDON
Two of the best touches probably came from Zidane, fielding loose balls with his brown shoes. Real's full backs, Dani Carvajal and Marcelo, showed little inclination to leave their stations until after the interval when Real released the handbrake slightly.
The second half had slightly more to offer but could hardly be less inspiring. For a Champions League semi-final, the technical quality was disappointing with misplaced passes and wide shots.
The game badly needed someone to step up. Thus, it was time for the Hart show. First he saved from Casemiro's header with his foot. His wall, and especially his captain, then protected him well. After Fernando fouled Marcelo, Bale drilled the free kick in and the jumping Vincent Kompany stretched to head the ball clear.
Hart applauded his defence for their resilience. Then came his most impressive moment, with his point-blank star-save from Pepe.
Pellegrini sought to nick a goal with the introduction of Raheem Sterling but to no avail. But the Chilean remained confident despite the stalemate.
"I don't think they are favourites. We have the same option as Real Madrid to go through," he said.
"They have the advantage to play the first game away. They try to manage the tempo of the game. After that they finish at home. They play away very similar to how we play at the Etihad. We are not afraid to go to Bernabeu and we will see which team plays better."
However, Real will clearly be favourites, especially if Ronaldo is fit. They simply have too much individual quality. It was just a shame we did not see much of it on show at the Etihad.
Zidane splitting his trousers cannot have been out of excitement.
THE TIMES, LONDON, THE GUARDIAN