Defensive masterworks from Real Madrid and Manchester City left the Champions League quite evenly matched.

Vinicius Junior and Kevin De Bruyne’s jaw-dropping goals were the only ones to breach two elite defenses.

There were just two goals in this Champions League semifinal that were deserving of the occasion. Yes, there were the occasional rapid breath intakes and scurries here and there, but this was nothing like the thunderous meeting it had threatened to be just moments earlier. Although the tension persisted, only spectacular flashes—first from Vinicius Junior and then from Kevin De Bruyne—could be seen as the final product. Both were goals that would have propelled their teams to the premier club football match. That would be necessary. Simply put, these defenses were too strong to be overcome by anything less than the finest.

This evening provided evidence of soccer’s wonderful quality—that a great offensive does not always defeat a great defense. The defense can almost always win the game if the offside traps remain strong, the tackles are made, and the goalkeepers maintain their composure. Luka Modric and Bernardo Silva can weave all the beautiful patterns they want. Madrid and City both fell short of keeping a clean sheet, but they both gave their adversaries just one path to victory: the purely miraculous.

Each side gave its individual interpretation of the long-range golazo just once. When Modric dragged Rodri up the field and eliminated him from the match with a single flicked pass, Madrid’s energizing counterattack got underway. Vinicius took a touch to get the ball off of his feet as the unstoppable Eduardo Camavinga stormed up the field, amazingly launching the ball into the top corner with a stroke of his right boot.

The hosts were confined to the deepest parts of their Bernabeu bunker by City’s press during the half-hour prior to the opening. However, that territorial domination had scarcely resulted in the high number of shots that Pep Guardiola’s team typically registers. Like Madrid at the other end, they primarily found themselves restricted to long punts.

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Total, Los Blancos had three attempts from inside the penalty area. Twenty3

The combined efforts of Antonio Rudiger, the wind-up merchant unleashed, and the more responsive David Alaba managed to quiet even the marauding Erling Haaland. Though he may have touched the ball seven times within the penalty area, just a small number of those touches occurred directly in front of the goal, where he could have actually forced a threatening shot past Thibaut Courtois. The same could be said for Karim Benzema, whose only genuine threat came following an amazing five-pass play featuring Vinicius and Dani Carvajal. Even that astoundingly intricate maneuver was unable to get past the City defense, but John Stones rushed back in time to divert the ball over the bar.

Madrid, in contrast to their opponents, was well-prepared to take a low block position, let City play in front of them, and direct through balls to the penalty area’s least dangerous spots. Although it was arguably their greatest option for containing the Premier League leaders’ relentless assault, there were still some risks involved. Even if the aggregate anticipated goal (xG) value of De Bruyne’s three shots was 0.15, that does not accurately capture the threat he created from a distance. The Belgian is the sport’s most proficient ball striker. In the words of Jack Grealish, “you wouldn’t choose anyone else for it to fall to.”

De Bruyne hardly needed the space Modric gave him when he was 20 yards away; this kind of space transforms a low-value xG pre-shot into something much more dangerous. He did, however, take advantage of it by winding up a shot with such force that it put the net in danger of dying. The best player for City has performed admirably for them in a Champions League semifinal for the third time in as many years. Maybe nobody would have tonight if he hadn’t discovered a solution.

Which is not to argue that City were any less than their typical selves or that Guardiola had made a mistake with his team selection, as he is frequently accused of doing at this point in the competition. Stones may have slowed down play in the middle when City needed more oomph, but putting that aside, his 11 finest players put on a show of composure, organization, and skillful interplay. Madrid, who experienced the exact same difficulties at the other end of the field, simply could not be broken down by it.

This tie is still hanging by a thread for the time being. To split these two apart, something truly exceptional will be required. But fortunately for the audience, both of these teams have shown that they are more than capable of doing just that.