For the third consecutive knockout game, Real looked down. Despite being a side that have grown accustomed to unlikely heroism, even by their own absurd standards, Wednesday’s belated and belated show to secure a 3-1 win over City cut it nicely.
With City leading 4-3 from the first leg, Riyad Mahrez’s second-half goal had seemingly booked his side through to the final in Paris.
However, two goals either side of substitute Rodrygo’s 90-minute mark turned the game around and sent the game into extra time.
In truth, it was then as if there would be only one winner.
No matter how deep a hole Real seem to be in, the magic inside the Bernabeu always seems to bring the team out.
It will be Ancelotti’s fifth time reaching the Champions League final as a manager, the only man to ever achieve the feat.
“A por la 14,” read the writing on the back of Real’s party shirts. “Let’s go for number 14.”
Real down but now out
It took less than eight minutes for the tempers to flare for the first time, as Luka Modric and Aymeric Laporte both received yellow cards for their part in a brawl sparked by Casemiro’s poor tackle on Kevin De Bruyne.
Casemiro, as he so often inexplicably manages to do, avoided a foul penalty.
Minutes later, Benzema got the crowd inside the Bernabeu up for the first time. The Frenchman connected smoothly with Federico Valverde’s low cross but was unable to keep his effort low enough to disturb Ederson in City’s goal.
Unsurprisingly, the game was an altogether cagier affair than the electrifying first leg at the Etihad last week. City knew it was up to Real to try to level the tie and Pep Guardiola’s side were content to allow their opponents more possession than they did a week ago.
Real at times looked unsure of how to build their attacks and twice offered City the ball in dangerous positions, but the team had Thibaut Courtois to thank for making smart saves from De Bruyne and then Bernardo Silva .
Those in white did their best to disrupt City’s skillful attacking moves, especially Casemiro. The Brazilian was again responsible for another cynical foul, this time dragging Phil Foden to the ground by the scruff of his neck and then kicking him on the back of his legs.
Referee Daniele Orsato once again inexplicably failed to produce a yellow card.
More ‘magic’ at Bernabeu
Much of the conversation after the first leg focused on City’s inability to put the tie to bed as it allowed Ancelotti’s side route back into the game time and time again.
This current Real side may not be on the level of previous iterations, but getting to the Bernabeu with just a one-goal advantage remains a daunting task. There’s just something intangible – almost mystical – that hangs in the air on a Champions League night at this stadium.
True fans have already been treated to spectacular comebacks twice in recent encounters; most recently against Chelsea in the quarter-finals and previously against Paris Saint-Germain.
All this crowd needs is a little moment to get behind their team and push the Real players to heights they perhaps doubted they could reach.
“This energy… that the fans give off, the players – even more in the matches [like against PSG] where we had to come back in a tough Champions League game – feel it,” defender Nacho told CNN of the Bernabeu atmosphere.
“It hits us and nights like that, it hits us on a whole new level. The Bernabeu is special on nights like that… you think about it and you get goosebumps. You get goosebumps in thinking about living nights like that because they’re historic, they’re magical.”
It’s Nacho’s use of the word ‘magic’ that seems most accurate on Champions League nights. In games like these against City, when nerves can often grip both groups of players, those moments of magic can decide the tie.
Real may have thought they had found such a moment in the opening minute of the second half, but Vinicius Jr. was unable to direct Dani Carvajal’s pristine cross towards goal while alone at the far post.
Vinicius’ ability to find so much space at the far post was largely due to Kyle Walker being out of position, with City’s right-back hampered by injury; Walker missed the first leg with a knock and his improvised replacement Fernandinho was terrorized by Vinicius all evening.
Walker was patched up and raced out in time for the second leg as City knew he was their best chance to counter Vinicus’ blistering pace. However, despite numerous attempts by city medical staff to save his night, the injury eventually forced Walker to leave.
In his place, Oleksandr Zinchenko and, perhaps a little surprisingly, Guardiola also brought in Ilkay Gundogan in place of De Bruyne – and it took less than a minute for his double substitution to have an impact.
Zinchenko and Gundogan combined to find Silva in acres of space towards Real’s goal and the side pass from midfield found the pressed Mahrez, who fired a first shot past Courtois into the top corner.
As the game drew to a close, substitute Jack Grealish twice nearly doubled City’s lead on the night and sent his side to Paris.
But just when fans were finally beginning to believe the ‘magic’ wasn’t real, Real once again proved that it might be.
Two quick goals from substitute Rodrygo – the first an instinctive tap-in and the second a brilliant header – either side of the 90-minute mark delighted a previously silent Bernabeu.
From a team that looked so depressed seconds ago that much of the stadium had started to empty, Real now looked the most likely to win this tie.
City had their backs against the wall for most of the six minutes of added time and were probably even grateful to hear the full-time whistle as Real’s onslaught continued.
But Guardiola’s side were only given a moment’s respite before the bombardment resumed and it took just three more minutes of a draw for Real to take the lead in that draw for the first time.
Dias’ reckless challenge in the box brought down Benzema, who dusted himself off and calmly shoved the ball into the bottom right corner.
And that was it. A shocked City side never seemed to regain enough composure to find their way back into the draw.
Despite all of Guardiola’s tactical tinkering and meticulous preparation, it seems nobody can find a way to stop what’s happening at the Bernabeu. Nobody can find a way to stop the ‘magic’ of Real Madrid.
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