Beauty without heartache – Real Madrid and Manchester City will play the same way next week in the Champions League

The best match of the season so far should not change Real Madrid and Manchester City’s approach in the second match of the Champions League semi-final next week.

It is rare in football and in life that you get something so eventful that does not end in heartache and disappointment. Usually for every hectic high you are rewarded with in your existence, it is followed by a reality check, or at least sweaty hangover.

But on Tuesday night, two brilliant teams, perhaps the two best in the world right now, demonstrated what they can do when they trust the desire to locate the goal and beat it, and neither of them needs to get away with anything but a will to to prove himself again next week.

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For most of the week, there had been speculation about how Pep Guardiola would make a surprise. Would he put Gabriel Jesus as right back? Would Riyad Mahrez come in as a false nine? Would Raheem Sterling play in boots made of ice? Could a pack of Salt ‘n’ Vinegar Squares work as a reverse winger?

Instead, Guardiola relied on the work he has done over the last few seasons at the Etihad, the instructions on the training ground and the hundreds of millions spent on assembling the team he wanted while funded by petrodollars.

City have given him carte blanche to act as he sees fit and the club have been rewarded with Premier League titles, domestic trinkets and no Champions League trophy yet. But on Tuesday – for at least one leg of a draw – they have the advantage when it comes to the second game.

Play like that again and City will be convinced that they have enough to secure their way to the final in Paris. Phil Foden’s youthful excellence and Kevin De Bruyne’s genius are enough to beat almost anyone. However, Real Madrid will not be untamed.

That’s because they have Karim Benzema. The French veteran has grown into his role at Real Madrid one season after another. He was clearly talented, but over the years he has become more technically proficient, more consistent in front of goal and with his teammates and a goal scorer of vital goals. His brace can be crucial. Without him, the club probably would not be heading for a La Liga title, and specifically tonight, they would almost certainly not have a chance of advancing to the final.

After a single goal, when they have a home advantage in the second match, Carlo Ancelotti’s men may know that if the same city shows up, they will be in trouble. But they will also be aware that the chances of that are slim, while they know with Benzema and the increasingly important Vinicius Jr., along with players like Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, are far from out of the competition.

Karim Benzema (Real Madrid)

Image Credit: Getty Images

When Manchester United lost by the same margin to Real Madrid in the 2002/3 season, it convinced Alex Ferguson to start breaking up his last team. Gone was the desire to attack, and in came a more structured approach to the game. Cristiano Ronaldo replaced David Beckham, and the team began to adopt 4-5-1 more regularly than 4-4-2. In a few years, Roy Keane would be gone, two deep-seated midfielders would sit in front of Edwin van der Sar, Nemanja Matic and Rio Ferdinand. They went from imperial to impregnable.

With Ancelotti now 62, there is little chance he will change his ways. His approach has always been to synthesize the best eleven he can when he rocks up, and strive to keep everyone in a decent mood. No tactics, just vibes. With the right setup, it is undeniably effective, especially with players as excellent as Benzema.

Guardiola, however, can see things differently if he does not emerge victorious from the two-legged ties. A notorious overthinker when it comes to big fights, a defeat can send him back to the 4D drawing board. Guardiola has built a fantastic team, but if he is to revolutionize football for the second time, he may be derailed into believing that his side needs more control and fewer ambitions. Keeping the ball for minor purposes can appeal if he loses by a small margin to a dangerous side. That would be a mistake. For neutrals, players and fans on both sides, they have witnessed one of the finest and least miserable experiences since the pandemic. To walk away from the approach City used last night would be to walk away from the fun. Guardiola’s City and Real’s Ancelotti should be commended for giving people something to celebrate.

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