Gareth Bale rose to the occasion to keep Real Madrid’s La Liga title hopes alive with the only goal in a vital win over Real Sociedad at the weekend. Almost immediately, though, attention turned to whether the world’s most expensive player will again be the sole member of the Spanish giants’ famed “BBC” trio available when they take on Manchester City in the second leg of their Champions League semifinal at the Bernabeu on Wednesday.
In a goalless draw at the Etihad last Tuesday, Cristiano Ronaldo was absent with a hamstring injury, while Karim Benzema was compromised by a similar complaint and was withdrawn at halftime. Both players remain doubts to return for a finely poised second leg. And, although Real Madrid appear confident of having the duo available, it was a similar message put out ahead of the first leg.
It was clear they were missed in Manchester. Going up against a side playing in their first ever Champions League final, the 10-time European champions took increasing control of the contest in the second half. However, they lacked the decisiveness in the final third that Ronaldo, in particular, so often provides, leaving Madrid without a precious away goal.
Still, there remains plenty to encourage Zinedine Zidane and his side. The 1-0 win at the Anoeta at the weekend made it 10 straight victories for Real Madrid in La Liga, keeping them just a point behind Barcelona and Atletico Madrid in the table with now only two matches remaining. And the triumph was also secured while resting Toni Kroos, Marcelo, Dani Carvajal and Pepe.
Manchester City, playing a day later on Sunday, felt compelled to make eight changes to the lineup ahead of playing for a place in the club’s first Champions League final. However, the decision, at least on Sunday, backfired. City were swept aside 4-2 by Southampton to leave their place in next season’s Champions League still in doubt.
One of those players to drop out of the starting lineup will definitely not be returning. David Silva has been ruled out of the second leg with a hamstring injury that forced him off five minutes before halftime in the first match. The big question for Manuel Pellegrini now is how to replace the influential Spanish playmaker.
Kelechi Iheanacho was the man to come on for Silva last week, and has been in tremendous form. Having found the net twice against Southampton, it is now four goals in his last two starts for the 19-year-old Nigerian. Another option would be Raheem Sterling. The big money purchase from Liverpool last summer has struggled to make a major impact in his first season at the Etihad and, having been overlooked for the first leg, did little to make his case for inclusion at the Bernabeu against Southampton.
But Pellegrini could yet be boosted by the return from injury of Yaya Toure. The Ivorian, a Champions League winner with Real Madrid’s arch rivals Barcelona in 2009, missed last week’s first leg with a thigh injury, but is now back in training.
Prediction: Both teams had reason to see last week’s first leg as a missed opportunity. While Real Madrid failed to capitalize on their second-half dominance, Manchester City can be disappointed at the degree to which they faded in the second half against a team missing two of its three standout attacking players. Still, it leaves the semifinal wonderfully poised for the second leg.
Having managed to stop Real Madrid from scoring at the Etihad, Pellegrini’s side now know that an away goal would give them a huge advantage and leave Madrid needing to score twice. Much could come down to the fitness of Ronaldo and whether he can make a substantial impact on the attacking end while not leaving his side hobbled defensively. It is a very similar scenario for Toure. At home, though, where Real Madrid have been phenomenally strong since Zidane took charge, they should be backed to make yet another final.
Predicted score: Real Madrid 2-1 Manchester City