MADRID: Real Madrid players Mariano Diaz (second L), Toni Kroos (third L), Jesus Vallejo (second R) and Lucas Vazquez (R) along with other team-mates undergo physical exercises at the club’s training ground on Monday.—Reuters
MADRID: Real Madrid players Mariano Diaz (second L), Toni Kroos (third L), Jesus Vallejo (second R) and Lucas Vazquez (R) along with other team-mates undergo physical exercises at the club’s training ground on Monday.—Reuters

MANCHESTER: Two of the best attacking teams in Europe face off in the Champions League semi-finals on Tuesday, with Manchester City’s record-seeking Erling Haaland going against Real Madrid’s red-hot trio of Vinicius Junior, Rodrygo Goes and Karim Benzema.

It will be a rematch of last year’s semi-final, when Real got the better of a City team that didn’t have Haaland in the squad. City fell short of European success yet again, while Real went on to win a record-extending 14th title.

The addition of Haaland could be the difference-maker for Pep Guardiola’s team this time as they travel to the Santiago Bernabeu for the first leg.

City seemed set for a second consecutive final when they led 5-3 on aggregate heading into stoppage time of the second leg at the Bernabeu last season.

But they were stunned by two goals in two minutes by Rodrygo before Karim Benzema’s penalty completed the comeback in extra-time. A late defensive collapse was only part of the story. City also paid for not taking a series of chances to kill the tie off over both legs without a natural goalscorer.

 MANCHESTER: Erling Braut Haaland of Manchester City runs during a training session at the Etihad Campus on Monday.—Reuters
MANCHESTER: Erling Braut Haaland of Manchester City runs during a training session at the Etihad Campus on Monday.—Reuters

Less than a week later, City announced they had won the race to arguably the greatest guarantee of goals in the world right now by beating off Madrid to sign Haaland.

The Norwegian has more than justified the hype with 51 goals in all competitions and with the high likelihood of more to come.

After years of near misses in the Champions League, City are hoping the prolific 22-year-old is the last piece of the jigsaw as they look to finally land the big prize.

He has revelled in Europe — scoring 12 of City’s 26 goals in the Champions League this season, not least when he fired five past RB Leipzig in the last 16 and then struck in both quarter-final legs against Bayern Munich.

But Real coach Carlo Ancelotti isn’t too fixated on Haaland and said his plan was to try and foil City’s “unstoppable” team.

“Obviously Haaland is a very dangerous player. He’s showing impressive qualities, above all in goalscoring. He’s a threat obviously,” Ancelotti told a news conference on Monday.

“Just talking about Haaland means not talking about a complete team that plays good football, defends well, attacks, that has ideas. We’re not setting up for a game to stop Haaland, but to stop a team that seems unstoppable, but I think we can have chances to have an equal game, one that we can win.”

Haaland, who has a Pre­mier League-record 35 goals this season, added a new dimension to a City attack that played most of last season without a striker. Instead of focusing on always dominating possession, Guar­diola has been happy to use Haa­land as a weapon on the counterattack at times.

Ancelotti admitted City have more avenues to cause danger with Haaland in the side.

“It’s a more complete team than last year,” said the Italian. “Today, they can take advantage more of long balls, because they have a very tall striker, and behind him is [Kevin] De Bruyne, so they can win balls in the air. They have not changed their style, they are very well organised at the back and a team that handles the ball very well.”

Real will stick to the formula that has worked well in recent years, with Viní­cius, Benzema and Rodrygo taking turns to lead an attack that scored 25 goals in the Champions League this season — 15 of them coming from the trio. They scored eight of the team’s 10 goals in the knockout stage alone. Last season, Vinicius, Benzema and Rodrygo combined for all six of Real’s goals as they advanced past City.

Rodrygo is coming off a two-goal performance in the 2-1 win over Osasuna that gave Real the Copa del Rey title on Saturday. Vinicius had an assist and continued to play at a top level. Benzema had a hat-trick in Real’s 4-2 win against Almeria in the previous La Liga round.

With the Copa title secured and La Liga out of reach, Real can fully focus on the matchup against City.

City, meanwhile, are closing in on matching Manchester United’s feat of being the only side to win the Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup in the same season in 1998/99. Three wins from their final four games will retain the Premier League title for a third consecutive season.

United will have their shot at stopping the treble in the FA Cup final on June 3 but most see Real as the biggest hurdle left for Guardiola’s men to scale with either AC Milan or Inter Milan awaiting the winners in the Champions League final. The Premier League leaders are unbeaten in 20 games in all competitions and will also relish having home advantage for the second leg having won all 14 games at the Etihad in 2023.

Real’s veteran midfielder Toni Kroos stressed the importance of taking their chances if they are to beat a well-oiled machine like City. “We must play well and score goals. As simple as that,” Kroos told a news conference. “To be solid on defence is also important when you face a rival who scores three goals every game. We need to score, but I trust in the experience we have in games like this.”

Published in Dawn, May 9th, 2023

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