Another Champions League quarter-final result this season that was ultimately predictable, but only after a shock. Erling Haaland missed a penalty. Then he went on and showed why that’s so surprising by scoring the goal that absolutely secured Manchester City’s third consecutive semi-final. Pep Guardiola has another big appearance at Real Madrid, a third in four seasons.
That will likely be a lot closer than that 4-1 aggregate win over Bayern Munich and represents perhaps the biggest obstacle remaining to a potential treble for the Abu Dhabi project. It might even be “the real finale.”
The truth of this tie was perhaps a little more complicated than the score line suggested. What was odd was that there were so many passages in that 1-1 where Bayern looked like they could keep up with City, but – like in the first leg – it was always like they just held on and Guardiola’s side would have raised can.
That happened again, and the scorer of the decisive goal was even sharper than usual. Haaland was the literal difference on the night and a deeper difference between the sides in general.
Bayern just looked like a team that expected a player like that, missed him late and then had to make compromises. But that’s all the stranger because they knew they wouldn’t get him long before last summer. Sadio Mane’s signing is all the stranger. Bayern have so many fast wingers and those who started here have caused all sorts of problems for City.
It was just that the indecision above the front line matched the indecision within the front line. After often brilliant build-up play, Bayern repeatedly made the wrong choice just before the penalty area.
That was remarkable and ensured that an enjoyable game only threatened to turn into a real competition because Bayern only ever threatened to create a real chance. They rarely actually did.
The best fell to former City striker Leroy Sane after just 16 minutes and it was an occasion where the immediate feeling was that it had to go into this game to have any chance of being one of those high-profile comebacks.
However, when Ederson was unmasked, Sane hit wide. It was to be one of the winger’s more focused moments, aside from an admittedly well-taken free-kick. In addition, he backheeled when he should have gone on goal and turned outward when he should have gone inside. The otherwise superb Kingsley Coman was the same, passing when he should have shot and saving when it should have passed.
The contrast was most evident in the minute before Haaland’s goal. Before that, the movement of Bavarians caused real problems for the city. Guardiola’s left side has been mangled which will undoubtedly affect Real Madrid and Rodrygo.
However, John Stones was already observing everything. He was a picture of calm and strength in City defence, ensuring that so much chaos never really descended on the team. It took the sting out of Bayern’s big build-up and so many attacks.
It was quite a contrast to poor Dayot Upamecano on the other end. He endured another dismal night against City. It could even have caused the momentum to go out of play earlier. Upamecano had actually seen the red card early on for getting Haaland out of a counterattack, but it was withdrawn because the Norwegian was offside.
It was a warning indeed, if only after another sting. Upamecano was just unlucky next, as a shot from Jack Grealish went out of his hand and City were awarded a penalty.
You could say Bayern were lucky with what happened next, but it was more than that. In a desperate situation, Tuchel’s players tried their hand at gameplay, most notably Joshua Kimmich. He strolled around in front of Haaland so conspicuously to throw something behind the goal.
It might have made a difference. Instead of going deep into the corner as usual, the striker went to smash them. He smashed it into the crowd, who all too willingly goaded him. Haaland would remember that. Spielwitz hasn’t worked for a long time – or maybe it worked wrong. The Norwegian was outraged.
Shortly before, FC Bayern had one of these attacks that were visible throughout the night. One of their wingers would charge to the edge of the box and be forced to check by clever city marshalling, the defense would get back in line and the ball would be switched to the other end for a more optimistic effort. It happened so many times, only Coman’s directness made the difference.
Bayern should get a lesson in that immediately. After Coman was closest with an effort, City went straight at the other end, Haaland gave the run to Upamecano again to put it over Yann Sommer.
He motioned for the crowd to be quiet, of course. They weren’t entirely reassured when Kimmich scored his own penalty for handball, but City had already made the noise. Haaland is still the best at silencing anyone right now.