Belfast Telegraph

Heroic Joe Hart gives Man City fighting chance against Real Madrid

Manchester City 0-0 Real Madrid

By Mark Ogden

If Manchester City make it to Milan for next month's Champions League final, it will be the heroics of Joe Hart that could prove the difference between success and failure for Manuel Pellegrini's team.

The England goalkeeper, whose defiance in Paris last month helped keep Paris Saint-Germain at bay, produced three crucial second-half saves against Real Madrid to enable City to travel to the Bernabeu for next week's semi-final second-leg with the advantage of not having conceded an away goal.

In a tense and hard-fought first-leg at the Etihad, which took place without injured Real winger Cristiano Ronaldo, City held firm to keep themselves alive. 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 with Ronaldo being forced out with the thigh problem that saw him miss the weekend victory over Rayo Vallecano.

Having trained with his team-mates at the Etihad on Monday, the former Manchester United winger had appeared, as coach Zinedine Zidane had claimed, to be 100 per cent fit and ready.

But with Zidane wary of Ronaldo aggravating the problem, the former Real midfielder chose to err on the side of caution.

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.

So City would clearly have been energised by Ronaldo's absence and, although they were without the midfielder power of Yaya Toure, Pellegrini's team sensed that this was their opportunity to secure a crucial advantage.

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 (right) pounced on a lapse of concentration by Gael Clichy.

He then attempted to square the ball for Benzema on the penalty spot, but City were rescued by Vincent Kompany. 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.

Four minutes later, Pepe's defensive partner, Sergio Ramos, was fortunate to avoid joining his team-mate in the notebook after giving away a free-kick for a crude challenge on Fernandinho, who impressed with his organisational skills and leadership at the back.

The challenge was a sign of the high stakes, and David Silva joined with an uncharacteristic hack at Bale. Silva was booked, but more significantly, the Spaniard tweaked a hamstring 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 in the first-half.

Zidane replaced 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 shot over the crossbar. Two minutes later, Bale broke into the City penalty area again and went down under the challenge of Nicolas Otamendi, but play was waved on.

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 jumped highest to connect with Toni Kroos' corner, but Hart was perfectly positioned.

City began to sink deeper into their own territory as the clock ticked down, but Hart was there when it mattered as his team-mates tired.

Jese sent a header against the crossbar and Luka Modric shot over from 25 yards before the City goalkeeper earned his wages with a goalline block to keep out Casemiro's header.

Hart then produced a point-blank save to deny Pepe, who volleyed goalwards from six yards.

Only time will tell how important that save was, but it could yet prove decisive.

MAN CITY: Hart, Sagna, Kompany, Otamendi, Clichy, Fernandinho, Fernando, Jesus Navas (Sterling 77), De Bruyne, Silva (Iheanacho 40), Aguero.

Booked: Silva

Unused subs: Caballero, Zabaleta, Kolarov, Delph, Mangala.

Real Madrid: Keylor Navas, Carvajal, Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Marcelo, Modric, Casemiro, Kroos (Isco 90), Lucas, Benzema (Jese 46), Bale.

Booked: Carvajal, Pepe

Unused subs: Casilla, Varane, Rodriguez, Kovacic, Danilo.

Man of the match: Joe Hart

Match rating: 6/10

Referee: Cuneyt Cakir (Turkey)


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