Champions League hits and misses: Man City too good for Real Madrid as Kyle Walker and Jack Grealish impress
Man City show why they are the team to beat
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Beat Real Madrid. It just feels different. Especially for Manchester City after the trauma of their dramatic semi-final defeat last season. Pep Guardiola even referenced it in his press conference afterwards, suggesting the pain was still with them.
How to get closure. The Madrid mythology was intact following the first leg, a game that hinted at City’s superiority only to then suggest Carlo Ancelotti’s men retain that rare ability to find a way. This blew that notion away. City were far too good.
Should we be surprised? Twenty-three games unbeaten is one thing, but in front of their own supporters it is 15 wins in a row. This season they have won 6-3 against Manchester United, 4-1 against Arsenal and Liverpool, 3-0 against Bayern Munich.
Madrid had no answers either, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos aging before the eyes. There was no twist in this tale. There is no controlling this city. ‘The best team in the land and all the world,’ sang their fans. It now feels like a statement rather than a boast.
Swagger of Grealish stands out
Bernardo Silva deserved his player-of-the-match award for his two-goal performance, making Eduardo Camavinga look like the makeshift left-back that he is. Ilkay Gundogan remains a clutch player, influencing the biggest matches for his team.
But a word too for Jack Grealish. His whole demeanour oozes confidence. While other top-class players on the pitch were looking rushed, the intensity of the pace proving a challenge, he gave off the appearance of a man who had all the time he needed.
In the final third, where space is at a premium, he retains possession, finds someone in more space than him, keeps the opposition on the carousel. The only time Dani Carvajal was close enough to trouble him resulted in a yellow card for the full-back.
Grealish has created 35 chances in the Champions League this season, more than anyone else in the competition and more than any English player has managed in two decades of Opta maintaining a record of such things. This is his stage now.
No showboats from Vinicius Jr as Walker savages him
“If I can’t compete with these top players, I shouldn’t be here. I need to make sure I come against the best and can deal with the best.”
That was Kyle Walker pre-match ahead of his predicted duel with Vinicius Junior as their battle in the Bernabeu pointed towards that area of the pitch being a key area where this tie would be won and lost. The Brazilian had the audacity to try and rainbow flick one over Walker’s head that night. But it was the Manchester City full-back who had the last laugh, putting on a masterclass of how to keep the devastating winger quiet.
He attempted just two dribbles over the 90 minutes and failed to complete either of them – while no Real Madrid player squandered possession more times in the match (17). Walker is almost becoming the go-to guy for a man-marking job. Kylian Mbappe was a no show for France vs England thanks to Walker, whose aggressive style and searing recovery pace makes him a nightmare to play against. And seldom do you say that about a defender.
Walker said afterwards: “You’ve got to have arrogance like the attackers do. I always say just go toe-to-toe with them. I believe I’m quicker than him [Vinicius Junior] and that I can use my physical dominance.
“I just wanted to make it as difficult as I can for him. He has been their main threat, once you nullify him, have they got a plan B?”
There was to be no rainbow flick this time. Just a pot of gold waiting for City in the distance.
Don’t count them out – Inter can beat Real or City
Not even the most ardent Inter Milan fan could argue the Nerazzurri will go into June 10’s Champions League final as anything other than underdogs.
The fourth-best side in Serie A side this season will come up against the most in-form side in Europe in Manchester City.
But what Inter can fairly claim is that they can hurt whoever stands in their way in Istanbul. Not necessarily in terms of quality, but literally hurt teams emotionally.
The June final will likely go a similar way to how Tuesday’s semi-final second leg with AC Milan went. Milan wanted the goals, they pressed high, they caused pressure. But Inter stood firm – and frustrated.
The first half of the San Siro second leg saw 22 fouls – the most in the opening half of a Champions League game this season. Fourteen of those fouls were from AC Milan players.
Inter broke up the play, using fouls to bring them up the pitch. Most importantly it brought them time to wind down the clock and frustrate their impatient opponents. A similar tactic in the final is expected.
But it is not just about the street-smart tactics. Inter have plenty to offer going forward.
Their forward options of Lautaro Martinez, Romelu Lukaku and Edin Dzeko have enough verve, nerve and cool heads to damage any defense. Denzel Dumfries and Federico Dimarco were major plus points in the semi-final games. Hakan Calhonoglu and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are expert playmakers from deep alongside Nicolo Barella.
And then there is manager Simone Inzaghi – who is now becoming one of the best cup specialists in Europe.
The Italian has won his last five cup finals for Inter and Lazio, you cannot count him out of this Champions League one, with the squad and culture he has with the Nerazzurri.
AC Milan limp out and may not be back any time soon
AC Milan deserve credit for getting this far but the manner of their exit – limp and without even putting up a fight against their most bitter rivals – ensures this Champions League campaign will not be fondly remembered. In truth, they looked out of their depth.
They had their moments in the first half, Brahim Diaz spurning an excellent chance early on and Rafael Leao firing narrowly wide, but, emerging from the interval needing something special, they instead looked like a beaten side. Inter toyed with them.
The gap between the two sides is only five points in Serie A but the gulf looked vast as Simone Inzaghi’s side, having already underlined their superiority in the first leg, simply stroked the ball around and waited for their chance to kill the tie.
Lautaro Martinez’s ruthlessness bore sharp contrast to what happened at the other end of the pitch, where Olivier Giroud floundered and Leao and Diaz offered nothing either side of him.
Amazingly, despite the circumstances demanding two goals and a place in a Champions League final at stake, Stefano Pioli’s side could only muster a solitary shot in the entirety of the second period.
It was a miserable way to bow out, as Inter’s jubilant fans celebrated, and the brutal reality is that, sitting four points behind fourth-placed Lazio domestically, it may be some time before they are back on this stage.