ETIHAD STADIUM, MANCHESTER — Manchester City and Real Madrid played out an instant Champions League classic in a rollercoaster semi-final first leg. 

Pep Guardiola’s Premier League leaders prevailed 4-3 but will rue leaving Madrid in with a chance of completing another famous Champions League Remontada at the Santiago Bernabeu next week.

Kevin De Bruyne and Gabriel Jesus put City 2-0 up inside 11 minutes but the indomitable Karim Benzema reduced the arrears.

Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva scored either side of a Vinicius Jr. solo effort as each side refused to relent during a sensational second half, with Benzema claiming his second of the night from the penalty spot to leave the semi-final up for grabs.

Here, we pick out four hot topics from a breathless collision in east Manchester.

Kevin De Bruyne makes his Ballon d’Or case

Guardiola teams might be all about the collective and 11 players manoeuvring the opposition into submission, but De Bruyne feels like he offers the antithesis of that right now.

While obviously serving the wider Guardiola machine, De Bruyne is like the ultimate big-game player. He scored the decisive goal in City’s fraught quarter-final against Atletico Madrid, opened the scoring in the 2-2 thriller against Premier League title rivals Liverpool, and almost single-handedly dragged his team to an important 3-0 win over Brighton last week.

Here, he was locked in from the off, making a brilliant run to convert Riyad Mahrez’s 2nd-minute cross before proceeding to ride roughshod over the Madrid midfield.

De Bruyne’s trademark surging runs and through balls were in evidence, but the sight of him bashing past David Alaba and then beating Ferland Mendy in a follow-up challenge, in a move that ended with Mahrez hitting the side-netting, left you in no doubt that you were watching the complete midfield performance.

Karim Benzema makes his Ballon d’Or case (again)

“Ultimate big-game player, you say? Hold my Cote du Rhone!” boomed Lyon’s finest.

This was not a vintage outing to rank alongside Benzema’s back-to-back hat-tricks against Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea earlier in the knockout stages, and City’s wayward finishing after going 2-0 up offered Madrid a lifeline. They were only in a position to take it because of the finest centre-forward in world football at this moment in time.

Especially after Madrid staggered out of City’s first-half whirlwind, Benzema’s efforts were arguably a little more impressive than De Bruyne’s. City’s Belgian magician had teammates laying a lovely foundation; Benzema was backed by a Los Blancos blancmange.

Shortly before first his goal, he skipped into the City box, won a corner, sprinted over to take it short, and Alaba almost glanced in the resulting cross. It was no surprise to see Luka Modric involved, snaffling possession from Mahrez, as Benzema scored Madrid’s first with a wonderfully deft finish.

At times it felt like those two were playing City on their own and they did a fabulous job of it, with the Frenchman’s audacious late Panenka penalty keeping the tie in the balance.

MORE: How will Haaland fit in at Man City?

David Alaba cannot fill Sergio Ramos void for Real Madrid

During the first half, it was not hard to spot Madrid players with great Champions League deeds to their name that felt very much behind them. The key difference for Alaba was all his came with Bayern Munich.

The Austria international was embarrassed by Gabriel Jesus for City’s first goal, although he was not the worst of the visiting defence. Dani Carvajal had a wretched time of things as City made merry down the Madrid right, while Eder Militao played with all the composure of a drunk taking a tour of a ceramics factory.

But an injury meant Alaba was the man to be hooked by Carlo Ancelotti at the interval, with Nacho sent on in his place. The man wearing Sergio Ramos’ old No.4 did not provide the required leadership and assurance when City turned up the pressure. Alaba has unenviable shoes to fill and they did not fit at all on Tuesday night.

Zinchenko turns in familiar heroics for Guardiola

It has been a recurring theme of Manchester CIty’s recent springtime bids for glory. Oleksandr Zinchenko finds himself out of the team in the winter months before re-emerging to play a fine hand during the run-in.

He went from squad utility man to first-choice left-back in 2018/19, last season he usurped Joao Cancelo during the Champions League semi-final against PSG, and here he was again in the Portugal international’s absence through suspension. 

During the first half, Zinchenko made a brilliant last-ditch challenge on Rodrygo and shackled the Brazilian superbly thereafter. He also sprung into interceptions and tackles, while being typically-assured on the ball in tight spaces.

MORE: Which teams have qualified for next season’s Champions League?

He made more passes in the Madrid half (59) than any City player, was tied with the effervescent Mahrez on a team-high four crosses, and tenaciously created Silva’s blistering strike.

Of course, the context of ZInchenko’s latest comeback – the horror of the war in his native Ukraine, of which he has spoken in such vivid and heartbreaking terms – makes his no-nonsense reliability all the more impressive.

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