Ashocking pair of defensive mistakes from Raphael Varane have sent Real Madrid packing from the last 16 of the Champions League for the second year in a row after a 2-1 defeat to Manchester City on Friday night at the Etihad Stadium.
The French centre-back committed a miscue in each half that led to goals for Pep Guardiola’s side, who punched their ticket to the final eight with a 4-2 triumph on aggregate.
Meanwhile, for Real Madrid, it is the second consecutive season in which they have been eliminated in the first knockout round, following last year’s elimination at the hands of Ajax.
Outside of a Karim Benzema header, the Real Madrid attack never found its flow and the failure to bounce back from the second Varane error is likely to be difficult to accept in the months to come. The absence of the suspended Sergio Ramos was also evident, with the captain helplessly looking on from the stands while Real Madrid wilted from their self-inflicted wounds.
Of note in Zinedine Zidane’s starting XI was the inclusion of Rodrygo Goes and Eden Hazard up top with Karim Benzema. The suspension of Ramos also forced the French boss to shuffle his back line, meaning Eder Militao was paired with Varane.
Real Madrid could not have had more of a nightmare start and it came in astonishing fashion with a schoolboy mistake from Varane. City were placing pressure on Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and Varane deep in their own half, and a heavy touch from Varane allowed Gabriel Jesus to strip away the ball and feed Sterling, who had the easiest of finishes into net for a 1-0 City lead.
It was imperative for Hazard and Rodrygo to get more involved if Real Madrid were to find a way back, and slowly the Belgian started getting more space and time with the ball and was able to set up Benzema with a chance that City goalkeeper Ederson did well to save.
The French striker would not waste his second good look at goal, as an inch-perfect cross lofted in by Rodrygo from the right met the turning forehead of Benzema, who deposited the ball into net to make it 1-1 on the night.
The tactical chess match between Zidane and Guardiola carried into the second half and an exquisite pass from Kevin De Bruyne gave Sterling a great chance at City’s second, only for Courtois to keep Los Blancos in the game.
Real Madrid had the majority of possession but Zidane’s side were still plagued by miscues in their own half and it almost yielded another City goal, but ultimately they were spared when Ilkay Gundogan chose to play to Sterling instead of having a shot of goal with plenty of space and time.
Zidane’s first change came just after the hour mark, with Rodrygo making way for Marco Asensio, giving the Real Madrid attack a spark that saw Benzema force Ederson into a big save.
But once again a shocking error from the Real Madrid defence would make the comeback task that much tougher. Inexplicably, it was again Varane who committed the fatal mistake, as his headed back pass intended for Courtois was anticipated by Gabriel Jesus, who was able to swoop in and steer a shot past Courtois to make it 2-1.
In need of two goals in the final 20 minutes, Real Madrid were forced to commit more numbers forward, but with James Rodriguez out of favour and Gareth Bale working on his short game back in Madrid, Zidane’s bench options were limited.
Zidane waited until the 83rd minute to make his next changes, with Lucas Vazquez, Luka Jovic and Fede Valverde all entering the pitch for Dani Carvajal, Hazard and Luka Modric. But it proved too little too late for Los Blancos, who slumped at the sound of the final whistle, ending their hopes of a 14th European crown.
2.- Manchester City: Ederson; Walker, Fernandihno, Laporte, Cancelo; Rodrigo (Otamendi, min. 89), Gundogan, De Bruyne; Foden (Bernardo Silva, min. 67), Sterling (Silva, min. 81), Gabriel Jesus.
1.- Real Madrid: Courtois; Carvajal (Lucas Vazquez, min. 83), Militao, Varane, Mendy; Casemiro, Kroos, Modric (Fede Valverde, min. 83); Rodrygo (Asensio, min. 61), Hazard (Jovic, min. 83), Benzema.
Goals: 1-0, min. 9: Sterling; 1-1, min. 28: Benzema; 2-1, min. 68: Gabriel Jesus.
Referee: Felix Brych (Germany).
Yellow cards: Modric (Min. 81) for Real Madrid.
Red cards: None.