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Back Manchester City with a -1.5 handicap
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There have been few more painful days in Manchester City’s post-Abu Dhabi takeover existence than 29 May 2021. Having secured the Premier League title a few weeks earlier, City were the favorites to win the Champions League for the first time. But Pep Guardiola made a surprising selection decision for the final in Porto, lining up without a holding midfielder, and Kai Havertz’s goal for Chelsea sent the famous trophy to London rather than Manchester.
City are desperate to avenge that defeat this term. They are no longer the favorites to win the Champions League, but that is large because Liverpool drew Villarreal, the weakest team left in the competition, in the last four. Real Madrid are tougher opponent than the Yellow Submarine, but City has an excellent chance of advancing to the final for the second season in a row.
It would be interesting to know whether the club’s supporters would sacrifice the Premier League title if it meant winning the Champions League. City’s fans once fans professed to having lukewarm feelings to the Champions League a few years ago, but that surely changed as soon as City became one of the main contenders to claim the prize.
Guardiola’s side had to dig deep in the quarter-finals. A 1-0 victory over Atletico Madrid at the Etihad Stadium was followed by a 0-0 draw at the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano. The second leg was a bruising encounter, with City forced to withstand sustained Atletico pressure in the second half. By coming out of that tricky assignment with a clean sheet, they only strengthened their credentials.
There is a sense of destiny surrounding Real Madrid and this competition. Ever since the European Cup was founded in 1955, there has never been a time when los Blancos have not been the tournament’s most successful ever side. They are the only club to have reached double figures for European Cup/Champions League triumphs, having got their hands on the famous old trophy no fewer than 13 times.
This is not merely a case of historical successes. Madrid has won the most Champions League since both 2000 and 2010. Their current squad contains several players who have won the competition four times: Luka Modric, Casemiro, Karim Benzema, Toni Kroos, Dani Carvajal, Marcelo, Gareth Bale, Isco. No manager has more Champions League victories to his name than Carlo Ancelotti, a three-time winner.
Madrid have put that experience and know-how to good use. They were second best for much of their last-16 tie against Paris Saint-Germain, but a Benzema hat-trick in the final 30 minutes of the second leg was enough for them to progress as their opponents wilted in the face of pressure.
Madrid were then facing elimination against Chelsea in the quarter-finals before staging another late turnaround. They were outclassed for much of that match at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, yet still found a way to dig deep and get the result they needed. On the verge of winning the La Liga title, Madrid will feel they are right in their element in the semi-finals of the Champions League.
This might not be the best Madrid team of all time, but facing them at the Bernabeu remains a tough assignment. City will therefore be keen to build up a first-leg advantage at the Etihad before they travel to Spain next week. That would pile the pressure on Madrid and leave City in a favorable position at the midway point of the tie.
It is worth backing City to triumph by a two-goal margin or more. It is true that Madrid have shown great character and spirit in the competition up to now, but it is hard to shake the feeling that they have also been a little fortunate. Short, sharp bursts got Ancelotti’s side past both PSG and Chelsea; on the balance of play across 180 minutes of each tie (plus an additional 30 against Chelsea), Madrid were the inferior side.
City’s possession play is the aspect of their game which attracts the most praise, but their coordinated pressing is just as impressive. There are plenty of top-class players within the City ranks, but none acts like a superstar.
The home team will probably have too much energy and dynamism for Madrid side that, despite its undoubted qualities, is in need of a refresh. City should get the job done on Tuesday.
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|Manchester City vs Real Madrid Information|
|Teams||Manchester City vs Real Madrid|
|Location||Etihad Stadium, Manchester, England|
|Time||Tuesday, 26 April 2022, 3.00 PM EDT|
|How to watch||CBS|
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Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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