Manuel Akanji (L) celebrates scoring the team's third goal | AFP
Manchester: Manchester City is three games away from making history. And after the stunning rout of Real Madrid in the Champions League semifinals on Wednesday, Pep Guardiola’s march toward a treble of trophies feels unstoppable.
“We are there. We can think about it, can visualize it,” the City manager said after his team’s 4-0 win at Etihad Stadium.
After drawing the first leg 1-1, Madrid’s undisputed kings of Europe were humbled and, except for the efforts of goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, the score line could have been so much worse for the 14-time champions.
City feels like an irresistible force as it closes in on the Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup titles. It was certainly too hot for Madrid to handle as Bernardo Silva scored twice in the first half, Eder Militao scored an own goal after the break and substitute Julian Alvarez struck in time added on to seal a 5-1 aggregate win.
Madrid has fought its way back from the brink on numerous occasions over the past two seasons, but this was too great a challenge.
After overrunning the defending European champions, City will be favored to do the same to Inter Milan in the final in Istanbul on June 10.
A win against Chelsea on Sunday would secure a third straight league title and Manchester United stands in its way in the FA Cup final. United is the only English team to win the three main trophies in one season — doing so in 1999.
City has already overtaken its Manchester rival as the dominant force in English soccer and can now emulate its greatest achievement.
“We are close and of course we are going to try,” Guardiola said.
City is going in search of its first Champions League title, while Guardiola is aiming to win it for a third time as a coach.
At times, it has seemed as though the pressure on Europe’s biggest stage was too big for a team that has been serial winners in domestic competition. While City’s quality has rarely been in question over Guardiola’s seven years in charge, its temperament in the Champions League has been.
On too many occasions it has fallen short when the heat was on — losing to underdogs such as Monaco, Lyon and Tottenham.
It was in command for almost the entirety of the two-legged semifinal against Madrid last year, but still managed to lose after blowing a two-goal lead in the last few minutes at the Santiago Bernabeu.
That never looked likely on this occasion, however, as City provided further evidence that it is finally ready to lift the one trophy that has eluded it.
“After 10 or 15 minutes I had the feeling that all the pain we had in one season, one year, what happened last season, was there today,” Guardiola said. “It was really tough to lose the way we lose and I think we had to swallow poison. Football always gives you another chance."
Carlo Ancelotti had described Madrid as a team with a “special power to stay alive.”
“We played against an opponent who deserved to win,” Ancelotti said. “They played with more intensity, more quality up front and they took their chances. They were better than us today, we were better last year.”
Having been dominated for long periods by Madrid in the first leg last week, City took control from the start in front of its own fans.
Erling Haaland had two clear chances to score before Bernardo’s opening goal — twice seeing headers saved by Courtois. With the crowd roaring on every City challenge, it felt like a matter of time before the home team would find a breakthrough — and it came in the 23rd minute.
After denying Haaland twice, Courtois could not keep out Bernardo, who raced onto Kevin de Bruyne’s pass before firing in at the near post.
The sense of relief was unmistakable — from Guardiola as much as anyone else in the stadium as he turned to the crowd, double fist-pumped and blew kisses toward the supporters.
Having been passive for the opening 30 minutes, Madrid sprung into life and Toni Kroos hit the bar from around 25 meters.
It was a warning to City and moments later the home team was celebrating a second goal, with Bernardo the scorer again in the 37th.
Ilkay Gundogan burst into the box and when his shot was blocked, Bernardo was the quickest to react, heading the rebound beyond Militao on the line.
Haaland could have killed the game when he came one-on-one with Courtois in the 73rd, but saw his shot diverted onto the bar.
City did not have to wait long for a third, with Militao diverting De Bruyne’s free kick into his own net.
The crowd was already in celebratory mood and was given one more goal to cheer when Alvarez burst through and slid a shot past Courtois in stoppage time.
Guardiola won the Champions League twice with Barcelona, but has failed to add to that total with Bayern Munich and City.
This is only his second final since last winning the competition in 2011, having lost to Chelsea in 2021.
“It’s a beautiful night for us,” said Bernardo. “We knew it was going to be tough, but to beat this Madrid team 4-0 at home it was wonderful . . . a wonderful feeling to be in the final again and hopefully this time we can try to win it.” AFP