Man City haunted by forgotten enemy as Real Madrid end Treble dream

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola -Credit:2024 Chris Brunskill/Fantasista

Just as it was all starting to come together, it fell apart for Manchester City.

Pep Guardiola's side have conquered all of Europe but have never mastered the art of penalties and were sent crashing out of the Champions League with a shootout at the end of another titanic battle with Real Madrid. The players gave their all and were clapped off by a terrific Etihad crowd but were left with another heartbreaking exit and with it the end of their dream to win the Treble.

If it is ridiculous that they made it this far in their quest, as all the momentum gathered around them towards one final push they found themselves frustrated by the team that has now bested them twice in three years over a series of epic contests.

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Despite picking up some big wins in recent weeks, City have not looked as strong this season as they were when they met Real last season and blew them away. They have had a chronic inability to keep clean sheets all season, so it wasn't really a surprise when Rodrygo netted in the 12th minute.

The only disappointment was the way it came about. Having been brought back into the team specifically for this match, captain Kyle Walker managed first to play Vinicius Jr onside and then spent the time he should have been blocking the cross to Rodrygo with his arm in the air instead appealing for a decision that would never come; if that was a harsh reintroduction for Walker, it was even more difficult for Ederson after he made a stunning reflex save only to see the rebound fall straight back to the Real attacker.

Just as they had last week at the Bernabeu though, City rallied. They had started well before conceding and just brushed off the goal to continue their siege of the Real goal.

Andriy Lunin wasn't being peppered but City pinned their opponents back and won corner after corner in the first half to put the pressure on. The goalkeeper saved well from a long-range Kevin De Bruyne effort and Erling Haaland saw a header come off the bar and bounce away.

Egged on by a rowdy crowd and facing the South Stand that had showcased Phil Foden driving the 192 'Wembley Express' bus before kick-off, City stepped it up a notch after the break. Jack Grealish saw a fierce volley pushed away and then Nacho did well to clear off his own goalline after taking the ball beyond his own 'keeper under serious pressure from Haaland.

This was European football at its best again, these two sides delivering another showstopper in their annual series of pulsating knockout games. Foden switched with Bernardo Silva to move more central, yet an hour ticked by with nothing to show on the scoreboard.

With every near miss, the crowd rallied again and so did Guardiola, encouraging more and more energy in the stadium to will the ball over the line. Real did their best to kill that momentum, taking their time at every break in play to stem City's flow.

Everyone in the stadium watched, waiting for a moment that they couldn't be sure could come. Could Real hold out?

No, was the deafening answer. Guardiola took off City's best player in Grealish and five minutes later his replacement Jeremy Doku had seen a cross only cleared to De Bruyne in the box and the Belgian smashed it into the roof of the net.

For all the talk of how Jude Bellingham has improved Real Madrid, it was one of City's summer signings that deserved the credit for getting them back into the game and the tie. It was an attacking change and City were rewarded for their intent.

As half the City team celebrated jubilantly by the corner flag, Ruben Dias was back in position behind the centre circle yelling at everyone to get back. He was ready to win this in normal time and wanted everyone else to follow suit.

"We'll fight to the end," sang the fans again and they now sensed a winner in normal time having seconds before been contemplating defeat. These are the big swings that come from a contest so finely poised.

It was all City, and suddenly all De Bruyne. Manuel Akanji pulled a ball across the box right to the goalscorer, only for his head to look up as his eyes lit up and he planted it over the bar. Guardiola and several players turned away in shock, only to return their focus back to the Real goal for the final 10 minutes that lay ahead... or 40 as it turned out.

Extra time allowed Real to reset, and also saw Haaland replaced by Julian Alvarez. As Real dared to stretch their legs again without having City's No.9 to worry about, it came at a cost for Vinicius - outpaced by Walker in a foot race and then forced off with injury after trying in vain to get a foot on the ball before it reached Ederson.

Former City youngster Brahim Diaz swung in a wicked ball at the end of the first period of extra time that found Toni Rudiger in the box, yet the centre-back could only help it over the bar. The Etihad breathed again and steeled themselves for the finale.

These two prize fighters were punch-drunk by the end, struggling to keep their feet after two hours of lung-busting action. One minute of added time at the end of it all felt both harsh and also a mercy for the players.

There is nothing merciful about penalties though, and certainly if you are of a City persuasion. They had actually won six of eight shootouts heading into this one including the Super Cup yet their record in general play has been so bad it does anything but inspire confidence.

A roar erupted when Julian Alvarez slotted the first one home, and as the crowd booed Luka Modric on his way to the spot Dias was there again to encourage even more from the crowd. However, Silva could only hit his straight into the arms of Lunin and Bellingham equalled the score.

Lunin then saved from Mateo Kovacic and while Foden and Ederson(!) scored their kicks, Lucas Vazquez, Nacho and Rudiger rendered that irrelevant as they got revenge for being dumped out of the competition last year.

City can still have an historic season and will be back to challenge Real again, they just came up short on the night. As Guardiola might say, it is what it is.