Jack Grealish strode clear with Dani Carvajal in his dust in the 87th minute. The England star sauntered past Thibaut Courtois with a clever shimmy before passing the ball towards the empty Real Madrid goal.
Manchester City were going 2-0 up at the Santiago Bernabeu, 6-3 up on aggregate. They were going to Paris and a second successive Champions League final, with their season-defining rivalry with Liverpool heading into another engrossing chapter.
Only, that’s not quite how it turned out.
Grealish didn’t get his goal. Ferland Mendy’s desperate lunge into his own net blocked the ball on the line – his clearance even failed to go in off the lurking Phil Foden, who was well-positioned to nudge home.
Of course, City were still going through with their lead on the night at 1-0, but Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid are like the White Walkers from Game of Thrones. You might think they’re dead, but they just keep coming back.
3 – Since 2003-04 when the last 16 was introduced, Real Madrid are the first team to lose a match in the last 16 (0-1 vs PSG), quarter-final (2-3 vs Chelsea) and semi-final (3-4 vs Man City) in a season and still reach the UEFA Champions League final. Immortal. pic.twitter.com/ZwHt65PDml
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) May 4, 2022
For so long it looked as though Pep Guardiola had produced something of a masterclass.
Had you shown an unassuming observer the first halves of these two semi-final clashes, the idea that it was the same teams involved simply wouldn’t have entered their mind.
Last week’s first leg in Manchester went down as an instant Champions League classic, with City taking a 2-1 lead in the break – it was a thrill ride almost from start to finish thanks to attacking ingenuity and defensive mishaps.
It took a little while to get to that stage on Wednesday – in fact, for most of the evening it didn’t look like were going to get there at all.
While the onus was undoubtedly on Madrid, there was more than a hint of tension in their performance as they struggled to retain possession and pass through City, who themselves appeared far more willing to play patiently.
And that was perhaps why Madrid simply couldn’t find their rhythm. City attacked with purpose and pace last week, leaving spaces for Los Blancos to exploit on the break, but Guardiola didn’t need his team to be quite so cavalier so long as they retained their aggregate lead.
A dreadful Vinicius miss just after the restart suggested Madrid’s luck was out, though the greater directness that spawned the chance saw them ditch their first-half attempts of intricacy, which never worked against an intensely well-organised City.
That didn’t quite usher in a period of Madrid domination, though. Riyad Mahrez slammed into the top-right corner to put City 5-3 up on aggregate with 73 minutes played, and that point City fans will have been loading up Sky Scanner, scouring for flights to Paris. The job was surely done.
Grealish then stepped up late on. Few would’ve worried that his inability to get that shot past Mendy was a precursor to more mayhem, but three minutes later – after Courtois had denied City’s record signing with a long leg – Madrid had themselves a lifeline.
Rodrygo, who has enjoyed something of a coming-of-age tale at Madrid recently, brilliantly got in front of his marker and glanced Karim Benzema’s pass beyond Ederson with the flick of his right foot.
Madrid’s remarkable ability to turn defeats into victories has characterised a fine campaign for the Spanish champions. Both at home and in Europe, Ancelotti’s team have defied the odds to dig themselves out of trouble on an incredibly routine basis.
Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea, and to an extent City in the first leg of the semi-final, have all seen Madrid’s character up close and personal, but surely this was going to be one uphill battle too far?
It wasn’t. Ninety-one seconds after providing a little belief, Rodrygo produced a wonderful header that secured one of the unlikeliest of extra-time periods you’re ever likely to see, and from there you felt destiny was only taking this one way.
As quiet as Benzema was – by his usual standards, anyway – he still managed to have the final say, stepping in front of Ruben Dias to win a penalty early on in extra-time. He didn’t attempt another ‘Panenka’, but he was no less accurate.
Benzema has now scored 10 goals in the Champions League knockout stages for Madrid this season, the joint-most by a player in a single campaign along with Cristiano Ronaldo in 2016-17 (also for Los Blancos).
It was only fitting that the 43-goal man who has been so crucial to virtually every major win of Madrid’s this season was there to have the decisive say once again… And decisive it was. City’s desperate late attacks fell flat against Los Blancos’ flat-back 10.
When Grealish raced clear with three minutes of regulation time left, a Liverpool v Real Madrid final was inconceivable. City had qualification in the palm of their hands.
But Madrid make the inconceivable routine. Now they’ll look to seal their 14th European title on May 28.
Guardiola, meanwhile, has now suffered elimination from six Champions League semi-finals (as many as Jose Mourinho) and has to rally his troops for a Premier League title race that is set to go to the wire.
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