Madrid: For once Manchester City goal monster Erling Haaland was shackled, but when his side needed a moment of magic the old reliable Kevin De Bruyne conjured it against Real Madrid in an absorbing Champions League semi-final first leg on Tuesday.
The 31-year-old De Bruyne, like the rest of City’s high-quality collection of internationals, has been outshone by Haaland’s record-shredding first season in England.
Norwegian powerhouse Haaland has netted 51 goals in all competitions but he found Real Madrid’s Antonio Rudiger and David Alaba a little less accommodating than the Premier League centre backs he has bullied mercilessly all season.
He was kept relatively quiet, with Alaba denying him with one sensational covering tackle, but De Bruyne popped up to make sure City emerged from the Bernabeu with a 1-1 draw.
With Real looking comfortable and threatening to add to the lead given to them by a Vinicius Jr wonder strike, De Bruyne showed again why he remains so indispensable for City as they seek to finally win the Champions League and perhaps a treble.
His shot from outside the area was a thing of beauty, the ball rising no more than a foot off the turf as it streaked like a missile through the Madrid air and past Thibaut Courtois.
“Kevin is a massive player for us. Always he has been great and he helped us in the moment we most needed it,” City midfielder Rodri said of the Belgium talisman, who has been a key component in four Premier League winning teams.
“We were suffering a bit because they were keeping the ball and with the goal he gave us the confidence to keep pushing.”
Swinging the tie in City's favour
De Bruyne’s 14th Champions League goal for City means he is the first player in Champions League history to score in separate away games against Real in the knockout rounds.
It also swung the tie in favour of Pep Guardiola’s side, who will be slight favourites in the second leg next Wednesday in the Etihad Stadium where they are unbeaten for five years in the competition.
They will have to be wary, however, of a Real side who will also take a large amount of comfort from the first leg as they seek to win the trophy for a record-extending 15th time.
Despite ceding the lion’s share of possession to City, especially in the first half, they oozed serenity, never panicked, and looked razor-sharp on the counter-attack.
The reigning champions also managed to shut down the supply to Haaland and in Brazilian livewire Vinicius Jr they had the best player on the pitch on Tuesday.
No wonder wily old manager Carlo Ancelotti did not look too perturbed at not winning the opening leg.
“We have to play like this again next week,” the Italian, who has won the competition twice with Real and twice with AC Milan, said. “Our strategy was good, we weren’t worried when they had possession. Then the second half was completely different. We are left with good sensations.” Guardiola, too, was happy with what he saw, although said some tweaks might be needed.
“Now it’s like a playoff. We can defend better in some departments, maybe we can attack a little differently,” he said.
“Alaba and Rudiger were so close to Erling, so there were very few spaces. Maybe we can adjust a couple of things.”