A day after Atletico Madrid survived a trip to Munich to reach its second UEFA Champions League final in three years, their crosstown rival set up a 2014 rematch for the European title when Real Madrid downed Manchester City 1-0 on Wednesday. Los galacticos were on form, pressuring City from the opening whistle, and the hosts were rewarded in the 20th minute with the only goal necessary to send them through after the scoreless draw in the first leg in Manchester. Now Real will play in a derby against Atletico on foreign soil in hopes of landing undecima, a record-extending 11th title.
Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo — back in the starting lineup after missing the first leg in England due to a hamstring injury — both put headers wide of the net in the first 15 minutes, and Manchester City was playing on its heels at the outset. By the time Bale found himself on the right side of goal and unleashing a hard right-footed blast that ricocheted off Fernando and past Joe Hart, Real already seemed like they were playing with an air of inevitability:
Once the goal went in and Manchester found themselves in a deficit, they awakened offensively and began to take the initiative a bit more. Fernando missed the opportunity to redeem his own goal a few minutes later on a corner, but his header drifted over the crossbar without forcing Keylor Navas to make a save. While Real still enjoyed far more of the opportunities, City saw Fernandinho ping one off the post right before halftime. Kevin De Bruyne forced a save by Navas five minutes after the second-half restart.
But while an away-goal equalizer would have put all the pressure on Real Madrid, Man City never could find the back of the net. The hosts generated three times as many scoring chances (15-5), succeeded in putting five times as many of those chances on target (5-1), and scaled back an early dominance on the ball to finish with a 55-45 split in possession. Real even had more tackles in the match, yet committed half as many fouls in the end. Playing a disciplined and intelligent game, Madrid strangled out any hope from Manchester City by the second half. The visitors had a few chances in the final dozen minutes, but both De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero put their attempts off target.
The 1-0 victory was the 10th clean sheet posted by Keylor Navas in 11 Champions League appearances this season. Despite having been linked to a Manchester United trade for David De Gea back in September, Navas has seized his opportunity with longtime Real keeper Iker Casillas gone from town and has made Madrid look lucky for having failed to pull off the trade with the English side. Since losing to Barcelona 4-0 and a 4-3 win over Shakhtar Donetsk in November, Navas has not allowed more than two goals in a single match since — a six-month stretch spanning 31 matches.
That streak of sound goalkeeping and opportunistic scoring means that we are guaranteed that a Spanish club will hoist the European Cup for the third straight season, after Real overwhelmed Atletico in extra time in Lisbon two years ago and Barcelona put three past Juventus last season in Berlin. Now we are on course for a Real-Atletico rematch in Milan on May 28.
Interestingly, since defeating their city rivals for the club’s tenth European title in May 2014, Real Madrid has been largely dominated by Diego Simeone’s squad. The rojiblancos were bounced from last year’s Champions League by Real in the quarterfinals; in 10 total matches, however, Atletico has five wins against four draws and just the 1-0 Champions League defeat. Real has been outscored 14-7 in those matches, as their rivals have effectively figured out how to neutralize the offensive firepower of their nemesis.
Both clubs will also be locked into a fight in La Liga over the final two weekends, with Atletico Madrid level on points with leaders Barcelona and Real Madrid just one point behind in the table. Once the final match is played on May 15, the two clubs will have two full weeks to rest and prepare for the Champions League final at the San Siro. The championship match could come down to which club manages to emerge in better health from the last fortnight of domestic play.
We will preview the Champions League final once the domestic season concludes in Spain. For now, though, both factions in Madrid have reason to celebrate after Real booked their trip to Milan opposite rivals Atletico.