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Haaland to hush critics as City eyes Real repeat

Guardiola backs striker, while Madrid aims to avoid another Etihad thrashing

Updated: 2024-04-17 10:34
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Real Madrid is hoping Rodrygo (left) will be the key to unlocking a Champions League semifinal berth, while Manchester City striker Erling Haaland will be looking to silence his doubters when the two teams meet in Manchester on Wednesday. AP / REUTERS

MANCHESTER, England — Manchester City is closing in on a second consecutive treble, yet Erling Haaland is still facing criticism as Real Madrid visits the Etihad on Wednesday, aiming to exact revenge for its Champions League exit last season.

The 14-time European champion was humbled at the semifinal stage 4-0 on its last visit to Manchester 11 months ago, as City went on to win the Champions League for the first time, along with the Premier League and FA Cup.

Pep Guardiola's men are 12 games away from repeating that remarkable feat, even without their prolific Norwegian hitting the form he did last season.

Haaland's return of 31 goals in 38 games this season is still impressive, but he has not scored in City's three meetings with Madrid in the past year, and failed to find the net in 13 of his last 20 matches for club and country.

The 23-year-old has also been in the firing line for not offering anything other than goals.

Former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher labeled Haaland the "ultimate luxury player" who is yet to become "world-class".

Ex-Manchester United captain Roy Keane, infamously sent-off in a Manchester derby for a pre-meditated lunge on Haaland's father Alf-Inge due to a long-running feud, went even further by claiming the City striker's hold-up play resembles that of a player in England's fourth tier.

The Spanish media have been just as harsh after Haaland failed to fire for a second consecutive year at the Santiago Bernabeu in last week's thrilling first leg, which ended 3-3.

His performance was described by Madrid sports daily Marca as "impotent", while newspaper Dario AS called him "clumsy and desperate" in his attempts to get the better of Antonio Rudiger.

Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti will not repeat the same mistake of dropping Rudiger for the second leg, as he did last season, after the German kept Haaland quiet at the Bernabeu.

Protective Pep

City manager Guardiola, however, has been protective of his star striker, pointing to both his record, and the collective success of his side in Haaland's two seasons at the club.

The English champion has lifted the UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup already this season, with more silverware likely to follow.

City holds a two-point lead at the top of the Premier League with six games to play, and faces Chelsea in the FA Cup semifinals on Saturday.

However, it is by helping to retain the Champions League that Haaland can make a global statement — and further his bid to win the Ballon d'Or, the annual award for the world's best player.

"The target is not the Ballon d'Or, the target is to win trophies and he did. Would we have won five trophies last year without him? Not a chance," said Guardiola when quizzed about Haaland's critics.

Guardiola also believes the forward's presence did have a telling impact in Madrid, as Phil Foden and Josko Gvardiol were allowed space on the edge of the box to smash in stunning strikes while the Real defense was tracking Haaland.

"He helps us to make more spaces in other areas, and his contribution has been exceptional since the day he arrived last season," added Guardiola.

" (He) helped us score some of them (goals) by creating lots of spaces for the others to score. I saw in his face, in what he said after the game (in Madrid), in the locker room, he was extremely happy."

City's result in the Spanish capital is not as spectacular as it would have been in the era of away goals, but the team is now favorite to make a fourth consecutive semifinal thanks to a fearsome record on home soil.

The holder has not lost at the Etihad in 30 Champions League games, dating back to 2018, and is unbeaten in 41 matches in all competitions at home since November 2022.

"There is not one minute where we will not do what we have to do," said Guardiola. "Be a humble team, a team with solidarity, and to try to attack them. We believe we can do it."

Versatile Rodrygo

Meanwhile, Madrid forward Rodrygo may hold the key to the Spanish side's success.

Rodrygo struck twice in a late blitz against City in 2022 to help Madrid knock the English side out of the competition, and was on target again in the 3-3 quarterfinal first leg last week.

While his Brazilian compatriot and strike partner Vinicius Junior and England international Jude Bellingham draw most of the attention, Rodrygo flies under the radar.

Rodrygo has superb poise on the ball, and dances slickly and effortlessly around defenders, with his movement making him hard to track.

However, Rodrygo's goals tend to come in fits and starts, but with three in his last two games, the forward may have hit another purple patch at a crucial moment.

In the first leg, Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti deployed Rodrygo on the left of the attack, a position where he has been used sparingly, more often being seen on the opposite flank.

The forward netted after 14 minutes to put his team 2-1 up, escaping into space down his wing, his shot deflecting off Manuel Akanji and past Stefan Ortega.

Content to play wherever and whenever the coach deems necessary, Rodrygo is a versatile weapon for Ancelotti.

"They didn't expect me to be on the left, we did it differently today and it went well," Rodrygo said after the game.

"We have to win there, it's all open — whoever makes the fewest errors will go through."

Madrid made several of those last season at City in the semifinal second leg, which saw Guardiola's side sail through to the final 5-1 on aggregate.

Los Blancos licked their wounds and have come back stronger this season, leading the Spanish top flight by eight points and looking sharper with Vinicius and Rodrygo backed up by Bellingham in attack.


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