Man City players and fans delivered on Real Madrid's Etihad worry but learned a crucial lesson

City suffered Champions League heartbreak again but showed why visiting teams fear the Etihad -Credit:2024 AMA Sports Photo Agency
City suffered Champions League heartbreak again but showed why visiting teams fear the Etihad -Credit:2024 AMA Sports Photo Agency

For three days Manchester City dared to dream the impossible. On Tuesday Pep Guardiola laid out the problems before them when it came to cementing a place in the history books, but Bernardo Silva gave the game away. A Double Treble was about a "legacy". The dramatic defeats suffered by Liverpool and Arsenal on Sunday had made it a possibility.

But this is always the week where dreams of glory come to live or die for City. Guardiola noted along on Tuesday when it was suggested this is the most demanding and dangerous week of their season. Two defining games in 72 hours. Survive to Sunday and all would have felt plausible.

Instead, they will look back on a raucously brilliant night at the Etihad and wonder how it was Real Madrid's players celebrating in front of a delirious away end at a little before 11pm. The count stopped at 67% possession, 33 shots to eight and 18 corners to one. But heartbreak ensued. The perfect legacy will have to wait.

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Guardiola will know this is just what Real do. This is now Europe's premier rivalry, but City are still learning on this stage. Real are the kings. They found a way to survive.

It still felt telling that when Antonio Rudiger's final penalty hit the back of the net, after a moment of mourning, the Etihad broke into applause. This wasn't a technically proficient performance as City delivered against Real last season, but it was jaw-dropping in other ways. The power of their second-half performance, in particular, will live long in the memory.

It was a night when players and fans were in unison. If last season's semi-final second leg was a demonstration of City's brilliance - a high-water mark of performance under Guardiola - this was what Champions League knockout games are supposed to feel like.

You could argue City haven't really had that in front of fans at the Etihad for a while. When they have had a second leg here they have tended to be comfortable, either because the damage was done in the first leg or because they ran away with the game. This might have been the tautest, tensest European night at the Etihad since that crushing defeat to Tottenham five years ago. The final feelings were woundingly similar, as well.

It was gripping to the point of unbearable at times. When people search for the phrase knife edge in years to come, they should just find this game. It felt almost constantly in the balance. A battle between City's domination of territory, that feeling that they always tend to find a way, against the might of Real Madrid. A team that has lived all there is to live in this competition and wrote another chapter on Wednesday.

They are the "kings of this competition" as both Guardiola and Bernardo called them around this quarter-final. They are also incredibly dangerous on the break and City had to balance a desperate desire to get back into the game with the fear of knowing a second goal could have killed them off.

Guardiola turned to the City fans around him and implored for more noise during the second-half onslaught, but he couldn't have been too disappointed with what he was hearing. There was the odd sigh of frustration as another attack broke down, or a pass was misplaced, but they passed within seconds.

Generally, this was the Etihad at its raucous and rowdiest best. It needed a night like this to show what it can do. As good as it is to watch your team demolish the rest of Europe and England, it can be even better when they are involved in a game that leaves you feeling like you played the full 90 minutes as well. Or 120.

Back in October, Federico Valverde picked the Etihad as the most difficult stadium he had played in. "Their fans and the way they play, all difficult," he said.

It was a suggestion that might have invited mockery from some fans in England, but the players tend to know when they're suffering and once again on Wednesday, some of Real Madrid's best started to find the intensity too much. After a good first half, they sought to hold what they had, but they just couldn't get out. The game was played exclusively in their half and as much as City's quality can hurt you, this was their relentless physicality killing you as well.

Real were left suffocated by that intensity. By the relentless nature of City's attacks and the speed with which they just kept coming. They wanted to attack, but they just couldn't.

If there was a problem for City it was that their second-half tornado didn't completely blow Real off course. Their advantage went, but they survived, and it became difficult to sustain it in extra time. Real started to flicker back into life. Every time they found a way forward Guardiola dropped to one knee. When the attack ended he put his palms out and insisted it had been fine all along. It was that kind of night.

It wasn't fine though. City should have struck a killer blow, but they didn't. Real were suffocated but they escaped with enough oxygen in their lungs to breathe again. That is all they need.