Man City vs. Real Madrid now a toss-up after dreary draw

By Samuel Charles

Real Madrid visited the Etihad on Tuesday for the first Champions League semifinal game in Manchester City's history. Unfortunately for viewers and fans this auspicious occasion became a snooze-worthy scoreless draw, one with many of soccer's biggest stars watching from the sidelines.

If you told Manchester City fans prior to this game that they would earn a draw with Real Madrid while watching Los Blancos leave England without an away goal, most would've been ecstatic -- but both teams seemed ready to settle for the eventual 0-0, as things unraveled.

While the Champions League round of 16 takes seemingly forever to play out, UEFA, rightly or wrongly, crams all four legs of the quarterfinals and semifinals into just five weeks, which means any of the wounded warriors leaving the Etihad will only have until next Wednesday to find a way to get healthy, when the second leg will be played at the Bernabeu in Spain’s capital.

Stars fail to light up the Etihad. Excitement was sparse in Manchester, which wasn’t helped any by the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo -- who already has 16 goals in this year’s tournament, twice as many as any other player -- as the 31-year-old Portuguese superstar was a late scratch, missing his first Champions League game in two years after a twinge in a late training session.

Karim Benzema suffered a strain in the first half, and was replaced by Jese at halftime, and after the game Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane could not guarantee that the two attacking stars would be ready for the return leg next Wednesday.

“We know how important both players are for us. ... We are going to try and get them fit. That is our plan. I can’t assure you of anything. I can’t tell you right now if they will be fit. We have to look at it day by day.”

Man City struggled throughout to muster any type of threat, ending the game with only one shot on goal, and the Sky Blues had to play without longtime focal point David Silva for over half of it, with the Spaniard leaving in the 40th minute due to injury (it sounds like Silva will miss the second leg, this is a huge loss for Man City).

Kevin De Bruyne, who had been so influential during the two legs for City against Paris Saint-Germaine, also struggled to impact Tuesday’s first leg with his lazy dribbles or inventive passing, as he so often does.

Sergio Aguero was even more quiet, with Pepe and Sergio Ramos bottling up much of City’s attack, and perhaps it’s no surprise that defenders were among the only players who stood out in a game that rarely reached a simmer -- as Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi were solid in back for the home team.

Madrid was poor before the half but began to create chances in the second half, eventually out-shooting City 13-4, putting three shots on goal, and forcing a few saves out of Joe Hart, who was deemed the hero in a game that probably didn’t deserve one. As the saves made by the only English starter on the field looked more spectacular than they were, in a game that was far from heroic.

Confident Chilean coach. Manuel Pellegrini, the well-respected Chilean who is keeping the coaching seat warm for Pep Guardiola, whose Bayern Munich team plays Atletico Madrid on Wednesday in the other semifinal first leg, rejected the notion that Man City had missed an opportunity to take advantage of Madrid without Ronaldo, and with Benzema hobbling.

Pellegrini also attempted to inject some confidence into his troops, who are only one win or any type of scoring draw away from playing in the Champions League final at the San Siro in Milan:

"I don't think they are favorites. As I said before the game we have the same option as Real Madrid. Of course, they have the advantage to play the first game away so they try to manage the tempo of the game. After that they finish at home. But this team plays away very similar to the way we play at the Etihad.”

“We had good results playing away at Paris Saint-Germain, Dynamo Kiev and Sevilla. We are not afraid to go to Bernabeu and we will see which team plays better in that game."

And why should City be afraid?

Both of these teams and their players are just two games away from being crowned champions of Europe. Madrid is certainly the better team at full strength, but this Man City squad is far more talented than the Chelsea team that won the Champions League just four years ago.

Health will be key, but either of these teams could easily end up in the final, and then it’s just one game for all the marbles.

In what should be the best players striving to reach the pinnacle of club soccer, Tuesday’s game was disappointing, one can only hope that the second leg delivers more entertainment than this first game -- which should only be replayed for people who are having trouble sleeping.

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