Real Madrid illustrate the gap between Man City and European football's elite
MADRID, Spain -- Neither team sparkled at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on Wednesday, but European royalty Real Madrid did enough in an underwhelming game to see off nouveau-riche Manchester City and book their place in this season's Champions League final.
Much of the build-up to the game, in the Spanish press at least, had looked at how the European Cup's most successful ever team were being challenged by recently arrived upstarts who had spent big through recent years but had little history in the competition.
A game that never really got going was decided by Fernando's own-goal, with the City midfielder deflecting Gareth Bale's cross-shot into his own net on 20 minutes. Madrid really should have put the tie out of sight after the break, but a half-fit-looking Cristiano Ronaldo passed up a host of chances and man-of-the-match Bale hit the crossbar with a header.
Zinedine Zidane's side now go through to their 18th European Cup final, where they will face city rivals Atletico Madrid in Milan on Saturday, May 28.
City never really looked likely to get there, with the tight final scoreline disguising the fact that at no point in this tie did they ever look likely to really hurt Madrid. Back at the Bernabeu, where he had such a hard time of it as coach in 2009-10, Pellegrini appeared in denial at his post-match news conference. The Chilean claiming that his side had been just as good as Madrid, and doubted the official UEFA statistics that showed Madrid had 15 attempts at goal (five on target) to City's four (zero on target).
Just as in the first leg last week, City's top scorer Sergio Aguero was well bottled up by markers Pepe and Sergio Ramos, Kevin De Bruyne struggled to get into the game and Yaya Toure looked well off the pace on his return from injury. The City coach did at least admit that his side missed the injured David Silva and unavailable Samir Nasri as they struggled to create a meaningful chance, with Fernandinho's 20-yarder off the outside of the post just before half-time the closest they came.
"Neither of the two teams deserved to win the game," Pellegrini said. "I did not see Madrid superior to us; we pressed them well, but with the ball we lacked creativity to do them damage. There was a lot of work from both teams, but very little football. Penalties would have been fairest."
Zidane was also pretty low-key when he faced the press after the game, even when it was pointed out he had scored the winning goal as Madrid won their ninth European Cup in 2002 and been assistant coach when they won a 10th European Cup two years ago, and was now close to winning the 11th as coach. The Frenchman agreed to an extent with Pellegrini's analysis, but he said his team had played "a good tactical game" as they limited City to only a few half-chances, while creating enough to have made things more comfortable themselves.
Madrid did look by far the better team, with Bale, midfielder Luka Modric and right-back Dani Carvajal the best players on show. Even still they had not played too much exciting football, being careful not to get caught on the counter-attack over the whole 180 minutes of the tie.
Zidane's side have kept 10 clean sheets now in this season's competition, matching the all-time record, and they look much more solid than they were, even with renowned tactician Rafa Benitez in charge before Christmas.
The dream that club president Florentino Perez surely had, and many Blancos supporters shared, of the Galactico coach bringing beautiful football to the Bernabeu has yet to come true. A player who was known for decorating games with individual moments of genius is emerging as a coach who values hard work and team ethic above all.
"We suffered as you always do in a semifinal, but in the end we achieved the progress to the final, which is the most important for us," Zidane said. "I'm the coach of this team, for sure I'm doing something well. But not just me, this is a question of us all, everyone who works with me. The most important are the players, and what they do every day. We can do important things if we work well."
While Zidane's Madrid project could well bear fruit in just six months, City are again looking at turning over the page and starting again.
The visitors looked stale and tired on Wednesday, as their Premier League travails have shown. Their evening was summed up midway through the first half when Toure just watched as opposite number Isco stopped near his own penalty area, had a think, changed direction and then scurried away with the ball. The summer will surely bring a huge rebuilding job overseen by incoming coach Pep Guardiola.
City's struggles, and those of Bayern against Atletico on Tuesday, can be put into context by the incredible dominance of La Liga teams across both European competitions. Spanish sides are now 14/14 against teams from other countries in UEFA knockout rounds this season. They are 17-1 up in their past 18 meetings with Premier League opponents, and have won 45 of their past 48 two-legged ties against rivals from across the full continent.
All of which means that, once Atletico had eliminated Barcelona in the quarterfinals, a second Madrid derbi decider was almost inevitable. In Milan in little more than two weeks' time, the scrappy upstarts will be Diego Simeone's side, and Zidane's aristocrats look certain to roll up their sleeves too.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan