After praising them extensively after their quarter-final victory over PSG for being ‘professional’, it would be churlish to withdraw the compliment now, when they have just restricted Real Madrid to three shots on target in 90 minutes. And yet this feels like a massive opportunity wasted. With Madrid clearly happy to walk away from the Etihad with a 0-0 draw, City were complicit in a scoreline that probably leads to brave exit next week in Madrid.
No Ronaldo, barely any Benzema, Bale a peripheral figure for half the match; as ridiculous as this may sound to those who have watched City in the third flight as recently as 1999, Real were initially as toothless an opponent as Stoke on Saturday lunchtime and were there for the taking. Because it was Real Madrid, because it was a Champions League semi-final, because City still have an inferiority complex in Europe, they assumed the role of underdogs. That mentality should have changed the minute they knew they would not face Ronaldo.
The Portuguese has scored 16 Champions League goals this season; the only other Real player to claim more than one strike is Karim Benzema with four. Shorn of Ronaldo and with the French striker clearly not fully fit, City should have walked out onto the Etihad pitch absolutely believing they had the more effective attacking players in Kevin de Bruyne, Sergio Aguero and David Silva. And yet the game was played as though both teams had shaken hands on a pledge to play almost all the game in the middle third of the pitch.
City were once again disciplined and energetic, snapping into tackles before resuming their shape. But it felt like risk was being sacrificed on the altar of professionalism, with Aguero looking isolated for long periods. Pepe will receive plenty of plaudits for his defensive display but City barely tested him with movement in behind, fear of losing possession stronger than the drive to test Keylor Navas. Failing to muster a shot on target in 90 minutes at home is not something that can ever be applauded, regardless of City’s professionalism across two-thirds of the pitch.
In the end, it was Real who sensed that City’s tiring legs could be exploited, while the home side never allowed themselves to swarm as they would in the Premier League. Such a shame as statistics and logic both suggest that Real should be happier with a 0-0 scoreline. Crude research conducted by the Daily Telegraph two years ago claimed that away sides have a 64% chance of progressing after a 0-0 draw; just don’t tell City that Real have actually only exited Europe once after eight 0-0 draws in away first legs.
Joe Hart spoke after the game about setting up a “good old-fashioned rumble in the Bernabeu”, but the suspicion is that City would lose a “good old-fashioned rumble” if Ronaldo and Benzema were both fit. Their chance probably came and went the minute they tacitly agreed to suffocate a game against a flawed side lacking their most potent weapon.
“From the moment we manage to score in Madrid, it will be very different,” said captain Vincent Kompany. You have to admire his optimism but then note that Ronaldo has scored 11 Champions League goals at the Bernebeu this season. City’s resilience and discipline have ensured they are still in the game, but you can imagine Wolfsburg were probably pretty convinced at 2-0. How did that one end again?