Thursday 26 April 2018

Aguero and De Bruyne struggle to fill void in quality left by Ronaldo's absence

Sergio Aguero (Photo: Getty Images)
Sergio Aguero (Photo: Getty Images)

Paul Hayward

If a footballing god reached down and plucked one player from the Premier League it would probably be Sergio Aguero, the closest in pure goalscoring ability to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo - the lost star of this first leg. In search of an attacking midfielder, the same deity might well lift Kevin De Bruyne from our soil.

The gap in attacking talent between these two sides was smaller than Real Madrid's glamorous reputation led us to think, especially once Ronaldo was taken out by injury. Madridistas and neutrals will have groaned, but for once the spotlight was dragged away from the great CR7, with his brooding looks, lethal power bursts and sky-high stack of goals.

If ever there was a night for Aguero to show he is in the platinum class of strikers, this was it, days after his own union, the PFA, contrived to leave him off the shortlist for player of the year. And it was hardly the worst opportunity for De Bruyne to display his gift for sudden, decisive action. Already De Bruyne is a master at turning a quiet passage of play into an invasion.

Not the most athletic-looking advanced midfielder, he is nevertheless blessed with a quick brain and a superb range of skills. Twenty-two minutes into this tie he drew gasps from the crowd when curling a ball right to left on to the toes of Aguero.

De Bryune chugs and then pounces. He also explores the forward areas like a natural No 10. His spatial awareness and opportunism were a menace to Casemiro and Toni Kroos, Madrid's two deep midfielders. If there is a player for Pep Guardiola to build the new Manchester City around, it is surely the young Belgian inexplicably sold by Chelsea before becoming Bundesliga player of the year.

Real Madrid, meanwhile, have always been the European giant you could most easily imagine Aguero playing for. Happily, though, he has stayed remarkably settled here at City, never agitating, never behaving as if he is trapped below his station.

There have been signs of late as well that De Bruyne is supplanting David Silva as City's senior playmaker, and that he and Aguero are building an understanding to delight Guardiola, the next man in. If this is to be the creative core of Guardiola's side, now was the time to prove it, against the 10-time champions of Europe. But it turned into night of toil for City's best players.

Aguero had been in fine form as he prepared to face that devious pair, Pepe and Sergio Ramos. His recent hat-trick at Chelsea brought up a century of Premier League goals in only 147 appearances. But that disparity again: Aguero started with 22 Champions League goals while De Bruyne was on three.

Ronaldo had 93 and Benzema, who was also injured and failed to reappear for the second half, was on 46. Now we know: without Ronaldo, Madrid start with noticeably less conviction, which makes you wonder why there is regular speculation about them selling him.

Just about every preview emphasised City's arrival on the stage where they need to be, given the owner's gargantuan investment. Yet the historical gulf remained. This was City's first semi-final in the European Cup/Champions League. It was Real's 27th. It was City's first semi in any European competition since 1971. And Madrid's 32nd.

Ronaldo scored 84 times in 196 Premier League games for Manchester United between 2003 and 2009 and was supposed to play the villain of the piece here on two levels: one as an ex-United megastar and secondly as Madrid's most potent weapon.

To see him removed after he failed a fitness test was to remember how infrequently infirmity strikes him down. It is a testament to his fitness and dedication that he spends so little time on the sidelines.

But his non-appearance here should have been a gift to City, who were confronted instead by the promising but less menacing Lucas Vazquez, and later Jese. As the game wore on though Zinedine Zidane's men were the ones pouring through on goal.

Soon enough Pepe was in the referee's book for a cynical tackle on De Bruyne and Ramos was fortunate not to join him after following through on Fernandinho. By half-time De Bruyne really was City's midfield leader after Silva had limped off injured, to be replaced by Kelechi Iheanacho.

A bold move by Manuel Pellegrini, the City manager, to replace a wide player-cum-No 10 with a second centre-forward.

It was a sign that 1. Real had not frightened City to this point and 2. That Pellegrini was prepared to take the argument to Zidane.

However, City still struggled more, not less, to exert control of a game that was falling way below its billing. There was hundreds of millions of pounds worth of talent on this pitch, but without Ronaldo the game lacked that spark of genius that raises the general level.

Madrid were hardly clinical but they were moving the ball more fluently than City, who saw too little of it to keep up a regular supply to Iheanacho and Agüero.

On came Raheem Sterling as Ronaldo doubtless licked his chops and thought about what damage he might do in next week's second leg.(© Daily Telegraph, London)

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