Manchester City once again left ruing lack of knockout punch as Real Madrid eke out shootout win

Steven Chicken
Manchester City players reacting to a penalty miss
Manchester City went out of the Champions League on penalties despite dominating Real Madrid

The Premier League title may now be Manchester City’s to lose, but this may well end up being the season where none of England’s big six clubs get what they really want.

Winning the league is never a triumph to downplay, but after last year’s treble heroics, City’s have set their own bar higher than that.

An inability to find their way past the best sides they have faced this season has held them back from once again romping to the league title, drawing both games against Liverpool, taking one point from their two encounters with Arsenal, losing away to Aston Villa and sharing the spoils at home to Tottenham.

Manchester City’s lack of sixth gear costly again

That lack of a sixth gear has now seen City exit the Champions League, too. They had Real Madrid against the ropes for at least 90 of the 120 long, arduous minutes at the Etihad Stadium, but were unable to land the knockout punch they needed.

For the first half an hour, the game settled into a familiar pattern: Manchester City putting ten men forward, Real Madrid matching them with ten men behind the ball, but always tightly coiled and ready to spring forward when the opportunity presented itself.

The opening goal came off exactly that gambit, with a hopeful long ball brilliantly controlled by Jude Bellingham, who saw off Rodri’s attentions in the process before working it out to Federico Valverde.

From there it was a simple ball to Vinicius Junior, following by a swift cross that left Ederson only capable of parrying Rodrygo’s first effort straight back to him to put home.

With City now in need of a goal to stay in the competition, one might have expected the game to continue in that vein.

For fifteen minutes or so after their goal, Real Madrid kept trying to replicate it, only for their final ball to never quite carve the City defence back open again.

READ MORE: Arsenal untouchables go missing as Rice, Odegaard and co. exit with a whimper

And then, they just…stopped. The ten men behind the ball became a stubborn eleven, rarely playing wider than the width of the penalty area when City had the ball in the final third.

Erling Haaland put one presentable header over the bar, then another onto it, with Bernardo Silva only able to react quickly enough to thigh the rebound wide of the post. Kevin De Bruyne went closer and closer from distance without success. Jack Grealish kept threatening to force the issue without ever actually managing to finish the job.

By the hour mark, Real Madrid looked thoroughly knackered. The sense was no longer that they were unwilling to commit to counter-attacks, but thoroughly unable, having been physically and mentally ground down by the relentless Manchester City passing machine. Yet still their lead remained intact.

Jeremy Doku impact not enough to see Manchester City past Real Madrid

Had the penalty shootout gone the other way, had Real not proved so resilient at the back this would have been Jeremy Doku’s story.

One well-oiled machine had been cancelled out by another, different kind of well-oiled machine; one that looked distinctly more Atletico Madrid than Real Madrid.

Doku is the least Manchester City of all Manchester City’s players. Having played just under half of their Premier League minutes this season, the winger is nonetheless single-handedly responsible for a quarter of all their dribbles that have led directly to shots on goal.

Where ceaseless robotic repetition had failed, Doku’s chaos element succeeded in jamming up Real Madrid’s defensive works.

Even just four minutes after his introduction from the bench, it was no surprise that he played such a key role in giving Manchester City parity, driving at Dani Carvajal then finding Manuel Akanji’s run to the byline.

His cutback to De Bruyne gave the Belgian a simple but well-taken finish – and it was already apparent that Real Madrid’s best chance of claiming victory was to somehow take the game all the way to penalties.

As it often does, extra time came and went without major incident, though Antonio Rudiger almost broke the run of play in the last minute of the first period, blazing off target from close range from the second phase of a set piece.

Rudiger made no mistake with the tenth and final spot-kick of the game, though, converting after Bernardo Silva and Mateo Kovacic outdid Real’s first penalty taker, Luka Modric, for the sheer rottenness of their efforts, making Andriy Lunin’s job far too easy for him under the pressure of an expectant home crowd.

That leaves City to play for the Premier League and FA Cup trophies. Liverpool having already claimed the League Cup but currently look unlikely to add to that. Arsenal are out of the Champions League and the FA Cup, and need to overtake City again to take the title. It now looks very much like the Premier League won’t get that coveted fifth Champions League place, either – bad news for Aston Villa or Tottenham.

This is what we want as neutrals, of course: for silverware to be shared around. But for those at the top end of the Premier League…nobody is smiling at the moment.