Manchester City may never be able to shake off the disappointment of being so close to Champions League glory, but failing to make that history.
Real Madrid will face Atletico Madrid in the Champions League final at the San Siro later this month, but it could so easily have been City had they but had gone for it, met the challenge and seized the day.
Gareth Bale’s deflected first-half goal was enough to separate the two teams on aggregate over two legs of this semi-final, but the reality is that City failed to turn up until the final ten minutes and, by that stage, they had left it too late.
Real were there for the taking, yet City lacked the fight and ambition to make it happen and now face a battle to return to this competition next season over the final week of the Premier League season.
There was no escaping the sense that City were entering virgin territory with this semi-final, the club’s first in the Champions League. In contrast, Real were playing their 27th semi-final in Uefa’s premier competition and the Bernabeu expected it to be a victorious one, particularly with Diego Simeone’s Atletico booking their place in Milan at the expense of Bayern Munich 24 hours earlier.
So City were attempting to make history of their own, at the same time as overcoming that of Real, a club steeped in glory and glamour.
The return to fitness of Cristiano Ronaldo – this season’s Champions League leading scorer – following the hamstring strain that had forced him to miss Real’s last three games was no surprise to City or manager Manuel Pellegrini, but the seventh minute loss of captain Vincent Kompany was a huge blow for the visitors’ hopes of progression.
Kompany is increasingly resembling a broken man at the heart of City’s back four. The Belgian is so crucial, yet so physically unreliable, with this injury the latest in a long line of setbacks.
And it came from nothing. Having spotted a gap in the centre-circle, Kompany broke forward in possession, but as he played a pass, the defender crumpled to the ground in clear discomfort as he clutched his right leg.
All the controversy had been about Ronaldo’s fitness, yet here was the man most likely to shackle him being forced to hobble off with less than ten minutes on the clock.
Pep Guardiola, City’s incoming manager, will want nothing more than a fit Vincent Kompany leading his defence next season, but the Catalan will surely be wondering if he can ever rely on him to stay fit.
Repelling Real was always going to be a challenge, even with a fit Kompany on the pitch to hold it all together for City, but in his absence, the home side poured forward in a blur of white, slowly turning the screw on Pellegrini’s team.
Ronaldo went close on 13 minutes when he headed over from Dani Carvajal’s cross, but although City survived that near miss, they simply could not get the ball to test Real themselves.
With Luka Modric and Toni Kroos controlling possession for Real, City were forced back deep into their own territory and it was only a matter of time before their resistance broke.
Whether Bale meant to score when he gave Real the lead on 20 minutes, only the Welshman will know, but after receiving the ball from the impressive Carvajal in the penalty area, an apparent cross into the six yard box ultimately looped over Joe Hart’s head and into the net courtesy of a heavy deflection off the shin of Fernando.
It was fortuitous, but it was deserved nonetheless.
City now had to score and, with the pace of Jesus Navas on the right, always had an outlet to hurt Real.
But when the Spain winger broke forward midway through the first-half, his cross to Sergio Aguero at the neat post was cut out by goalkeeper Keylor Navas.
As impressive as Real are going forward, they can also defend. Prior to this game, the aggregate score from their five Champions League home games stood at 18-0.
But City were bold, refusing to allow Real to bully them into submission, and Fernandinho gave the home side a warning when he hit the post from 20 yards moments before half-time.
With Juventus claiming a second-half goal through Alvaro Morata to earn a 1-1 semi-final draw last season, and therefore eliminate Real, City knew that memories of 12 months ago could eventually creep into the home side’s heads.
But any hope of making an early breakthrough was dashed by Real upping the tempo and constantly breaking into the City penalty area.
Within the opening fifteen minutes of the second-half, Real penetrated the 18 yards box on new fewer than six occasions, but each time, the finishing of the likes of Ronaldo, Jese and Modric fell short of the standards expected of Real’s attacking players.
Modric missed the best chance, having sprung the offside to face Hart one-on-one from 12 yards. The City goalkeeper stood up well, however, and blocked the midfielder’s shot.
But Real were knocking and knocking hard and, in an effort to swing the pendulum in City’s direction, Pellegrini withdrew the disappointing Yaya Toure on the hour and handed Raheem Sterling the chance to run at the home team’s back four.
City continued to lead a charmed life, with Bale’s header crashing against the post on 65 as Real saw another opportunity go to waste.
Real had been so dominant, but at 1-0, the anxiety within the Bernabeu became palpable as the clock ticked down.
City finally threw caution to the wind and played on the nerves, but chances were few and far between, with only Kevin De Bruyne going close with a free-kick into the side-netting.
Sergio Aguero then flashed a 20-yard strike over the crossbar in the penultimate minute, but in the end, it was too little, too late.