The bright lights of the Bernabeu shine down on another tantalising Champions League semi-final on Tuesday night as Real Madrid welcome Manchester City to the Spanish capital for the first leg.
The reigning champions put four unanswered goals past Chelsea over the two legs of their quarter-final to reach the last four, while Pep Guardiola’s perennial hopefuls ran out 4-1 aggregate winners over Bayern Munich.
Proving to be Real Madrid’s two-goal hero on more than one occasion this season, the up-and-coming Rodrygo – who struck a brace to hand Real a 2-0 win over Chelsea in the second leg of their European quarter-final – made lightning strike twice in front of goal during a tense Copa del Rey final on Saturday night.
The Brazilian’s double either side of a drilled Lucas Torro equaliser propelled Los Blancos to a 2-1 victory over a dogged Osasuna to ensure that Carlo Ancelotti would add to his ever-growing trophy haul this month, but after witnessing King Charles’s coronation, Los Blancos will soon expect to pay homage to Barcelona as the Catalan giants inch ever closer to wrestling the La Liga trophy out of their grasp.
With the top-flight title almost a formality, Real Madrid will unequivocally prioritise a 15th top-level European crown in what remains of a tumultuous season, and they have only failed to reach the final in one of the previous five seasons where they have progressed to the semis – going down to eventual winners Chelsea in 2020-21.
Victory for the Sky Blues over the holders would therefore act as a very good omen indeed for Tuesday’s visitors, but there are few who question Los Blancos’ authority in Europe. Ancelotti’s side enter the first leg on the back of five successive Champions League wins – keeping clean sheets in each of their last three – and they have scored in 16 continental games on the bounce since a 1-0 loss to Paris Saint-Germain in February 2022.
Torro’s strike for Osasuna in Saturday’s Copa del Rey final did stretch Real Madrid’s overall run without a clean sheet to four matches, though – perhaps a slight concern as Eder Militao prepares to watch on from the naughty step – but any domestic concerns are normally left at the door when Los Blancos walk out to the Champions League anthem.
Even with his captain on the brink of a first-ever career hat trick in Saturday’s clash with Leeds United, there was no room for sentiment in Pep Guardiola’s mind, and the Catalonian coach made his feelings perfectly clear after Ilkay Gundogan smashed his late penalty against the post.
Thankfully for Guardiola and co, the German’s first-half brace had already done the damage, but Rodrigo cut the deficit in half only two minutes after Erling Braut Haaland – who had suffered a rare off-day in front of goal – gave Gundogan his blessing to step up to the chalk.
The ending was far more nail-biting than it should have been for Man City, but the end result is a four-point lead over Arsenal at the top of the Premier League table on the same number of matches before the Gunners try to respond against third-placed Newcastle United later on Sunday.
Also with an FA Cup final in the back of their mind, a terrific treble remains a distinct possibility for Man City, who made Thomas Tuchel’s English homecoming a miserable one in a 3-0 quarter-final first-leg win over Bayern before picking up a satisfactory 1-1 draw in Munich.
Out of the Citizens’ last 16 games in all competitions, that stalemate in Germany is the only one that they have not won, although Guardiola is at risk of setting an unwanted record of seven Champions League semi-final eliminations as a manager; his current statistic of six is the joint-most alongside Jose Mourinho.
The most recent of those final-four exits came at the hands of Real Madrid last year, as City edged a seven-goal thriller 4-3 at the Etihad before losing 3-1 at the Bernabeu after extra time. If last year’s extravaganza is anything to go by, fans and neutrals alike are in for a treat.
As mentioned, Real Madrid will be forced to work around the absence of Militao for the first leg due to suspension; the centre-back was cautioned for the third time in this season’s tournament during the second leg of the quarter-finals, after which players on one or two bookings had their yellow cards wiped.
Left-back Ferland Mendy (calf) has partially trained and might be in with a slim chance of featuring, but midfielder Dani Ceballos is suffering from a quadriceps problem and will miss out.
On a brighter note, Luka Modric managed to play a part as a substitute in the Copa del Rey final after shaking off a hamstring concern, and the 37-year-old should be given the green light to start on Tuesday – music to the ears of Ancelotti and the Bernabeu faithful.
Aurelien Tchouameni could be the unlucky fulcrum to make way for Modric, while Antonio Rudiger will join forces with David Alaba at the back in place of Militao. Meanwhile, Eduardo Camavinga – who can now proudly claim to have won every major trophy with Real Madrid at the tender age of 20 – should continue in his makeshift left-back role.
A defensive concern is also lingering in the mind of Guardiola, who lost Nathan Ake to an apparent hamstring issue with 54 minutes gone against Leeds, and the Dutchman has been ruled out of the first leg. Cole Palmer’s ankle is also giving him grief, but the 21-year-old has been named in the travelling party.
With Ake sidelined, Guardiola will be tempted to recall Kyle Walker to try to keep Vinicius Junior at bay, while a host of well-rested regulars in Rodri, John Stones, Bernardo Silva and Jack Grealish are also primed to return to the first XI after Guardiola rang the changes at the weekend.
It was not Haaland’s day in front of goal at the weekend, but the 35-goal Norwegian – who also recently broke the single-season Premier League record with the same number – averages a goal every 58 minutes in the Champions League, unsurprisingly the best ratio in the history of the competition, and he will give his admirers plenty to think about on Tuesday.
Real Madrid possible starting lineup:
Courtois; Carvajal, Rudiger, Alaba, Camavinga; Valverde, Kroos, Modric; Rodrygo, Benzema, Vinicius Jr
Manchester City possible starting lineup:
Ederson; Walker, Dias, Akanji; Stones, Rodri; Silva, De Bruyne, Gundogan, Grealish; Haaland