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 Vinícius Junior, Rodrygo and Karim Benzema.
It will be a rematch of last year’s semi-final, when Madrid got the better of a City team that didn’t have Haaland in the squad. City fell short of European success yet again, while Madrid 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. The 22-year-old Norwegian scored 12 of City’s 26 goals in the Champions League this season. He is five short of Cristiano Ronaldo’s single-season record of 17 goals for Madrid in 2013-14.
Haaland 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. The striker has a Premier League-record 35 goals this season, and 51 in total in all competitions.
“With Erling we knew he scored everywhere,” said City boss Pep Guardiola after Haaland set a new Premier League record of 35 goals in a season last week.
“When you provide him with chances, he scores in all situations. Penalties, crosses, combinations, transitions. He can do many, many things. That’s why he scored a lot of goals. I have the feeling he wants to score goals because of his mentality.”
Madrid 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, Vinícius, Benzema and Rodrygo combined for all six of Madrid’s goals as they advanced past City 6-5 on aggregate in the semi-final. Rodrygo scored the two late goals that took the second leg to extra-time at the Bernabeu.
Rodrygo is coming off a two-goal performance in the 2-1 win over Osasuna that gave Madrid the Copa del Rey title on Saturday. Vinícius had an assist and continued to play at a top level. Benzema had a hat-trick in Madrid’s 4-2 win against Almeria in the previous Spanish league round.
With the Copa title secured and the league out of reach, Madrid can fully focus on the match-up against City.
“We’re preparing for a big game on Tuesday and we’re heading into it with our morale very high,” coach Carlo Ancelotti said. “We’re going to compete and fight because we’re so close to another final.”
City will enter the semi-final still in the middle of a tight title race in England. Guardiola had to play some of his top players — including Haaland and Kevin de Bruyne — for the full 90 minutes in the 2-1 win over Leeds on Saturday.
Madrid eliminated two other English clubs in the Champions League this season — Liverpool in the round-of-16 and Chelsea in the quarter finals. City advancedpast Leipzig in the last-16 and Bayern Munich in the last-eight.
Madrid are making their 11th semi-final appearances in 13 seasons and are trying to win their sixth title in 10 seasons. City played in their first Champions League final two seasons ago, losing to Chelsea.
Madrid midfielder Dani Ceballos has reportedly been ruled out of Tuesday’s clash, taking the Spanish side’s number of absences to three.
Ceballos is set for 10 days on the sidelines with a muscular problem in his thigh, Madrid-based Marca reported.
The report added that the former Arsenal man will be missed as Ancelotti is planning to utilise as muchof his squad as possible in the tie. Star midfielder LukaModric also is not at 100 per cent.
Left-back Ferland Mendy has missed the last 11 matches after suffering a calf injury during training at the end of March. The Frenchman is back in individual training.
“We are in exactly the same position as last year in Europe. Real Madrid again. Three games away from winning the Champions League,” City winger Jack Grealish told Daily Mail.
“All I can say is that I have never had so much confidence and belief in teammates and myself before a game as I have before going there next week.”
Written with inputs from AP/PTI