There was a solitary trick to stick in the mind. Real Madrid are the club where even the transfer business amounts to superfluous showboating. They delight in showing off, whether with wealth or talent. It seemed a microcosm of a club’s ethos when Marcelo, the left-back, attempted a backheeled flick.
It was a pass to span the generations, perhaps one plucked from Marcelo’s imagination. It found one of Real’s greatest ever players: sadly for Marcelo, it was his manager, standing in his technical area. Zinedine Zidane generally displayed greater precision with his passing.
Real still have star quality but, if only for one night, much of it was found in the dugout. A 0-0 draw at the Etihad Stadium means La Undecima remains very feasible. Zidane could yet join the select band to win the Champions League as both player and manager.
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But this was Real Madrid with a difference. A day of snow, sleet and hail set the scene for a white storm. Instead Real turned up in dark blue and without their most explosive player. Cristiano Ronaldo was confined to signing autographs by a thigh problem. A struggling Karim Benzema joined him among the spectators after an ineffectual first half. James Rodriguez, the playboy who does not play, was held in reserve. Gareth Bale was left as the lone representative of the ‘BBC’.
Real played functional football. Zidane, the great emblem of the beautiful game, consoled himself with their prowess at the fundamentals. “Defensively we played well,” he said. “It was a hard-working performance from us.”
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Perhaps management makes everyone sound like Tony Pulis, bringing a fixation with clean sheets and industry. Certainly it summed up the mundane nature of the game that Real’s threat came from corners, Zidane seeming to borrow from Pulis’ blueprint as Casemiro and Pepe drew fine saves from Joe Hart. “With the chances we had I am a little bit disappointed,” said the Frenchman.
They had fewer opportunities than usual: no shot of any variety until the 45th minute, none on target until the 54th, no real threat until Jese hit the bar in the 71st. If this was a glimpse into a post-Ronaldo Real, it was a depressing sight. If Real need a reason to repel any advances from Paris Saint-Germain for their record scorer, a DVD of this game should suffice.
Ever a master of disguise, Zidane had sold the press pack a dummy when he suggested Ronaldo would start. Bacary Sagna, who instead found himself marking Lucas Vazquez, was presumably relieved he did not. The entire nature of the game changed: Manchester City were defensively sound themselves but perhaps failed to grasp what a chance Ronaldo’s absence afforded them.
Like Leicester City, but in a very different way, Ronaldo has redefined what is possible in football. The scorer of 360 goals in 344 games for Real, 47 in 44 this season, 16 in 10 Champions League matches, he has an all-consuming hunger for goals and fame alike. When one loves the limelight as much as the Portuguese and has illuminated the game with such remarkable exploits, it can leave precious little room for anyone else. His absence created a void. Only Bale, in a couple of instants, threatened to fill it. No Ronaldo meant no goals.
Real Madrid's Gareth Bale speaks with Manchester City's Vincent Kompany after the game
Image credit: Reuters
Neat, tidy and unobtrusive, Vazquez was the antithesis of the flamboyant, spectacular Ronaldo. He ran a mile more than anyone else on the pitch but, apart from crossing when Jese hit the bar, without it being immediately apparent where and to what purpose. Both stand-ins brought reminders of their manager’s playing career, when the original Galacticos were teamed with low-cost locals in a policy that came to be called Zidanes y Pavones. On this occasion, perhaps, Real had too many Pavones, not enough Zidanes. Or, in modern-day parlance, not enough Ronaldos.
City tried to empathise. “David Silva only played 40 minutes and we didn’t have Yaya Toure,” said Manuel Pellegrini but, despite the Spaniard and the Ivorian’s importance to City, they are not comparable figures to Ronaldo. Silva, in any case, is probably out of the second leg. Ronaldo and Benzema are likelier to be available. “I can’t tell you right now if they will be fit,” said Zidane cautiously. “We have to look at it day by day.”
Caution was the watchword. “They came with a result in mind,” said Pellegrini, implying that result was 0-0. Zidane rebuffed that. “We always go out to win,” he said. Yet as City recorded a lone shot on target, deep into injury time, the shutout was achieved with few alarms.
Sides who were supposed to be about unpredictable individuals had structure and solidity. Real offered efficiency, rather than entertainment. It was the sort of performance more associated with his ill-fated predecessor Rafa Benitez than Zidane. But, minus Ronaldo, Real secured a sweat-soaked draw. Milan, and May’s final, may beckon for them.
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