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Manchester City beat Real Madrid in 4-3 thriller, but Benzema keeps the band alive | Champions League

To see Pep Guardiola watch this Champions League semi-final thriller where his Manchester City team had a healthy lead in the first leg at various times was to see a manager in the grip of pain.

He was glowing when Riyad Mahrez hit the side netting with Phil Foden on the square pass in front of goal. It could have been 3-0 to City after 26 minutes.

Guardiola looked like they were heading for a ball when Rúben Dias shortly afterwards handed over the ball and let Vinícius Júnior run through, even though the Real striker could not finish. City’s defense was unusually loose.

And what about the moment in 54 minutes, shortly after the Foot had made it 3-1? Guardiola had expected a throw-in to his team, only for it to go the other way. He responded by chasing the fourth official to get a yellow card. Vinícius would make it 3-2 almost immediately.

This is what City’s quest for a first Champions League does to the man who wants it, maybe needs it, more than anyone else. And maybe that’s what it’s about opponents playing against this Real team. Facing them is like walking in a park with a lion free. Fine, even quite entertaining, exciting. So suddenly not good. When Gabriel Jesus made it 2-0 in the 11th minute, it looked ridiculously easy for City. They could have been ahead 4-0 within the first half hour. And yet at the break, the advantage was only 2-1 when Karim Benzema appeared to show his deadly edge.

Karim Benzema throws the ball over Ederson to throw Real Madrid another lifeline.
Karim Benzema throws the ball over Ederson to throw Real Madrid another lifeline. Photo: Peter Powell / EPA

City pressed again after the Vinícius goal. When Oleksandr Zinchenko was sent off by Toni Kroos, everyone seemed to stop – certainly Eduardo Camavinga and Dani Carvajal did. Bernardo Silva did not. When the referee, Istvan Kovacs, played a smart advantage, the City midfielder fired a shot into the near, top corner and Guardiola could lose himself in joy.

It would not hold, Real took a break to regroup. Aymeric Laporte jumped on a high ball and nodded it in his outstretched arm. Punishment. No one doubted that Benzema would convert, but the Panenka, thought of in the middle, the disguise perfect, was audacity and calm from another plane. Benzema is the competition’s leading goal scorer with 14, while he has 41 goals in 41 games for Real this season. Guardiola fell on a drink cooler.

Real had been second-best for long periods in the last 16 and quarter-final matches against Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea. Still, they found a way to get through – partly thanks to Benzema’s goals, partly because of their history, who they are. The 13-time winners refuse to lose in this competition. And they are still alive in this edition.

Kevin De Bruyne heads in the opening goal within two minutes.
Kevin De Bruyne heads in the opening goal within two minutes. Photo: Tom Jenkins / The Guardian

The final act caused Dias to stretch at Real’s far post to meet a cross, but he could not stretch enough. Guardiola underwent its last set of distortions. In the heat of the moment, it was possible to forget that City had actually beaten Spain’s selected champions and outplayed them for long periods. They should have scored more goals. It’s never a good thing to let this opponent fight another day.

It was City’s third semi-final in the Europa Cup, whereas for Real it was number 31. Just enjoy it, Guardiola had told his players, and City did exactly that at the start, drawing the first blood after 93 seconds. Mahrez cut himself into a nail of space, moving away from Luka Modric, before choosing Kevin De Bruyne’s late run, who threw himself into the header with Carvajal – and then Thibaut Courtois – whistling.

Etihad had been a strangely subdued spot counting down to kick-off. Now it moved, and when the second goal came, there was joy, even unbelief. The foot slipped away to the left, and when he found De Bruyne, the cross was whipped into the area. David Alaba tried to snatch in front of Jesus to pinch possession, which felt risky, and he got it all wrong. When Jesus spun, the ball was still at his feet. The finish was simple.

Real’s defenders were uncomfortable, especially on the ball when City pressed on. The guests were there to receive and it felt as if City were inflicting serious damage. Mahrez had to hand over to Foden only to take the shot – a bad decision – while Foden pulled past the far post after a floating counter-attack. The quick feet and velvet touch of the foot was an eye-catching feature.

However, the defensive tremors were not exclusive to Real. City goalkeeper Ederson played a couple of bad passes in the first half, inviting pressure while Dias was caught on the ball more than once. Vinícius flickered, Alaba got up to send a header past, and then Benzema scored with a controlled volley from Ferland Mendy’s cross.

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Guardiola had to replace the injured John Stones, who filled in at right back in the absence of Kyle Walker and João Cancelo, with Fernandinho. It was the 36-year-old who crossed for the Foot’s goal – moments after Éder Militão had let Mahrez run through to curl up towards the far post. From the riposte shot the Foot and Carvajal blocked.

But it was Fernandinho who was beaten and surpassed by Vinícius to 3-2, City’s defensive cover nowhere to be seen. Laporte and Mahrez missed great chances on both sides of Silva’s goal, but the last word would go to Benzema.

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