If Manchester City make it to Milan for next month’s Champions League final, it will be the heroics of Joe Hart that could ultimately prove the difference between success and failure for Manuel Pellegrini’s team.
The England goalkeeper, whose one-man show of defiance in Paris last month helped keep Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paris Saint-Germain at bay, produced three crucial second-half saves against Real Madrid to enable City to travel to the Santiago Bernabeu for next Wednesday’s semi-final second-leg with the sizeable advantage of not having conceded an away goal.
In a tense and hard-fought first-leg at the Etihad Stadium, which took place without the injured Real winger Cristiano Ronaldo, City held firm to keep themselves alive ahead of next week’s trip to the Spanish capital.
They still face a challenge to overcome Real in their own backyard, but a scoring draw will be enough for City and they owe Hart for that distinction.
Facing the club’s first-ever Champions League semi-final – this was Real’s 27th – City were given a huge lift before the game had even begun with Ronaldo being forced out of this encounter with the thigh problem that saw him miss the weekend victory over Rayo Vallecano.
Having trained with his team-mates at the Etihad Stadium on Monday evening, the former Manchester United winger had appeared, as coach Zinedine Zidane had claimed, to be 100 per cent fit and ready for this first-leg.
Gareth Bale competes for the ball (Getty)
But with Zidane wary of Ronaldo aggravating the problem and potentially suffering a season-ending setback, the former Real midfielder chose to err on the side of caution and protect his star player’s fitness ahead of next Wednesday’s second-leg in Madrid.
For a club blessed with the attacking talents of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, James Rodriguez and Isco, Ronaldo’s loss would not have been the hammer blow it may have been to other teams, but the 31-year-old nonetheless provides the X-factor which can lift Real to incredible heights and none of the supporting cast have quite matched his ability to strike fear into the hearts of their opponents.
So City would clearly have been energised by Ronaldo’s absence and, although they were without the midfielder power of Yaya Toure, Manuel Pellegrini’s team sensed that this was their opportunity to secure a crucial advantage before the return leg and a Real team that had four of its last five Champions League semi-final ties.
The home side started well, with Kevin De Bruyne, Jesus Navas and Sergio Aguero displaying early threat, but after a cagey opening period, it was Real who first broke into enemy territory when Bale pounced on a lapse of concentration by Gael Clichy to break into the City penalty area.
Bale then attempted to square the ball for Benzema on the penalty spot, but City were rescued by Vincent Kompany’s interception and clearance.
City responded, with De Bruyne running at the Real back line and the Belgian was cleaned out by Pepe for his troubles, with the Real defender booked by referee Cuneyt Cakir for a challenge which was ridiculously reckless.
Kevin De Bruyne (Getty)
Four minutes later, Pepe’s defensive partner, Sergio Ramos, was fortunate to avoid joining his team-mate in Cakir’s notebook after giving away a free-kick for a crude challenge on Fernandinho.
Ramos, who impressed with his organisational skills and obvious leadership at the back, has long possessed a dark side and his scrape down Fernandinho’s left ankle merited a yellow card at the very least.
The challenge was a sign of the high stakes, of the refusal of either side to give an inch, and David Silva joined with an uncharacteristic hack at Bale.
Silva was booked, but more significantly, the Spaniard tweaked a hamstring in the challenge which forced him out of the game and potentially also the second-leg.
Rather than the anticipated free-flowing encounter, it proved an attritional battle and neither goalkeeper had a shot to save during the first-half.
Zidane replaced in the ineffective Benzema with Jese in an attempt to sharpen Real’s attacking threat, but the game continued to be played in the middle third.
Aguero should have done better on 46 minutes when he escaped Ramos and Pepe to race onto Fernandinho’s pass, but the City forward could only direct his left foot shot over the crossbar from 18 yards.
Two minutes later, Bale broke into the City penalty area again and went down under the challenge of Nicolas Otamendi, but Cakir ignored the Welshman’s appeals for a penalty.
Television replays suggested that the official made the right decision, with the two players guilty of nothing more than an innocent tangle of legs.
They were rare forays into opposition territory, however, and it was not until the 54th minute that Ramos forced the first save of the game from Hart with a close range header.
The Real captain, who appeared destined to sign for Manchester United last summer, jumped highest to connect with Toni Kroos’s corner, but Joe Hart was perfectly positioned to clutch the ball out of the air and into his chest.