Monday, July 4, 2022

Man City 4-3 Real Madrid: Karim Benzema Brace Keeps Champions League Tie In Balance After Thrilling Semi-final First Leg

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This was a Champions League classic that produced the most quintessential modern storyline. It was almost as if the last decade of the competition had been distilled, as one of that era’s great players also put on a display for the ages.

This was yet another knockout tie when a Pep Guardiola team should have been out of sight, and yet another when Real Madrid should have been knocked out of the competition. Both, as has so often been the case, remain in the balance after a 4-3 result that ebbed and surged in so many different ways, almost serving as multiple different types of matches in one. It had that much in it, and could still have had more goals.

It had so many dominant stars, from Riyad Mahrez to Kevin De Bruyne, but there was still one that went beyond everyone. That was of course Karim Benzema, who made it nine goals in these five knockout stage games alone. It was incredible and fitting because this match was often unbelievable.

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As is the case with so much great drama, it offered so much of what we’d seen before, but in wondrous new ways. That was right down to the Panenka penalty that closed it.

The game never let up from the opening seconds. City’s opening half-hour was up there with one of the most complete spells of football ever seen from a Guardiola team. They were relentless and almost perfect. One of a few caveats came from the fact Madrid were at that point so porous. They barely put in a challenge, as could be seen from a scarcely believable first goal.

That didn’t take away from City, who took full advantage of the extra space to express themselves. Mahrez weaved the ball through an area that had five Madrid players, with barely an attempt at a challenge from either Luka Modric or Ferland Mendy. The Algerian then put on the most inviting ball for De Bruyne to easily get between Federico Valverde and Dani Carvajal to head into the corner.

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It was hard to say whether the next was worse for Madrid, but it remained so easy for City. De Bruyne this time supplied the through ball and David Alaba was unable to keep his feet as Gabriel Jesus turned him to make it 2-0.

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The biggest caveat of all, however, was that City were maybe expressing themselves too much. Or, at least, not playing as ruthlessly they should be. That would not be a first either. It should not be forgotten that some of Guardiola’s very best spells of football have come with Champions League eliminations.

The accumulated memory of all those no doubt explained his extreme agitation, which culminated in a second-half booking and so many outbursts. The first and most conspicuous came as Mahrez chose to shoot from yet another surging break rather than pass to a free Phil Foden. It was part of a spell where City seemed to flash so many efforts just the wrong side of that post.

Before long, it was illustrated to them why that was so costly, especially against such opposition. Even in a low moment, in a bad performance, Madrid can seemingly conjure something out of nothing. Even in a play that barely passes as “a chance”, Benzema can score. So it was with his 33rd-minute strike that may well prove one of the key moments of the tie.

Benzema had already let his teammates know how furious he was with the state of the display, so went about sorting it himself. Modric did finally show he was playing by, well, showing he was there. A strong defensive midfielder’s challenge popped the ball to Mendy, who dropped a ball into the area.

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It probably wasn’t sufficient for most forwards to fashion a chance. It was enough for Benzema to finish brilliantly. This was another trademark finish to go with those headers, as he somehow angled his body to also fire a volley right into the bottom corner.

City should have been 5-0 up but instead found themselves with the narrowest of leads. It was about more than that, though. It was as if the tone of the tie had changed. Madrid were now digging in, winning challenges and headers they hadn’t been before. It became a different type of game, going from City siege to something more tactical.

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There was a classic push and pull, cat and mouse, symbolised by the chain of events that followed. Fernandinho came on for the injured John Stones, Alaba – who also claimed injury – went off for Nacho. That initially didn’t change much as Mahrez absolutely destroyed the Madrid sub in one of many sublime individual moments in this game. The forward could only hit the post from the one on one, though, before Carvajal then somehow blocked Foden’s point-blank effort.

You could say these are the moments in which such ties turn, but it didn’t affect Foden. He immediately went and scored a header from the same area, but the source of it was more indicative of the game’s thread. Fernandinho, on as a makeshift right back, first offered a passage of play that has elevated the greatest right backs. He won the ball on the right before overlapping Mahrez to clip the ball over Foden.

That should have been it but, as with so much in this tie, we had an immediate mirror effect. A City strength became a weakness, as Madrid realised how vulnerable Fernandinho was on the defensive side of that. Vinicius offered more of the individual ingenuity that really elevated this match as a classic, with an audacious dummy nutmeg that set him up for the most surging finish. There was almost too much to keep up with.

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That seemed the case for the players and the ref. Both of the next goals came from errors and mistakes, but again with the individual class to really maximise the openings.

First, Toni Kroos seemed to foul on the edge of the box, prompting referee Istvan Kovacs to put his whistle to his mouth. He didn’t actually stop play, although Madrid players did, and Bernardo just let fly.

Again City had the advantage. Again it was just lacking full application – or dull awareness. Aymeric Laporte inexplicably put his hand up and Kovacs had little option but to point to the spot.

The moment that completed the scoring also completely summed up the state of the tie. City had allowed Madrid a chance they probably didn’t deserve out of little, but Benzema maximised it by again expressing himself to his full potential.

It was remarkable how he could turn even a set-piece as simple as a penalty – and one as tense and important as this – into an exhibition of quality, but this is a player on career-defining form. He chipped the ball into the roof of the net, the effort almost going beyond a Panenka because of its audacious height.

This is a star going beyond the standard. More than anyone else, Benzema ensured Madrid are still in this competition. For much more than the first occasion, though, a Guardiola team should regret not putting the opposition out.

Photo Credit: Getty

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