Why Man City vs. Real Madrid was epic: What made 4-3 Champions League semifinal thriller an instant classic

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Kevin de Bruyne, Karim Benzema, and Pep Guardiola from Man City vs. Real Madrid split
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There's nothing quite like Champions League football. 

One of the most incredible and memorable matches in recent Champions League memory unfolded at the Etihad as Man City topped Real Madrid 4-3 in the first leg of their semifinal matchup.

The game featured everything fans would want to see from a game: incredible skill, spectacular goals, solid refereeing, dramatic twists and turns, and stars performing at the highest level on the brightest stage.

These are two of the best teams in world football today, but you can't help but wonder whether the elimination of the away goals rule might have also contributed to allowing these two teams to express themselves as they did. Whatever the reason for the incredible 90 minutes in Manchester, fans around the world were thankful.

The match ended as the joint-highest scoring Champions League semifinal alongside two 5-2 results in 1995 and 2018. This one featured far more drama in a tightly-contested affair.

"One of the best lights of my life in my career as a manager for the fact of the way we have done it," said Man City manager Pep Guardiola after the match, despite watching multiple potentially decisive multi-goal leads disappear. "I'm so proud and so incredibly happy the way we performed in front of the world."

MORE: Minute-by-minute recap of the Man City vs. Real Madrid Champions League thriller

Why Man City vs. Real Madrid was epic

Here are the moments that we won't easily forget from the first leg as the two heavyweights went blow for blow:

Fastest Champions League semifinal goal ever

Fans not in their seats at the opening whistle missed the first big moment of the match.

Just 95 seconds into the game, Manchester City had the opening goal, as Kevin de Bruyne's brilliance was on display from the opening whistle.

Riyad Mahrez put the ball on a platter and De Bruyne got his head to the delivery, redirecting it into the back of the net. Madrid's man-marking in the box was questionable all match, and it started in the opening seconds. 

WATCH THE GOAL: UK | USACanada | Australia


Gabriel Jesus: Man on fire

The Man City striker, with links to Arsenal swirling, and fresh off a four-goal blinder against Watford his last time out, got his name on the scoresheet to stun Real Madrid and put Man City 2-0 up early on. De Bruyne turned from scorer to creator, feeding the ball to Jesus's feet.

David Alaba was there, but he misstepped and allowed Jesus time to collect, turn, and fire into the back of the net.

WATCH THE GOAL: USA | Canada | Australia


Benzema does it again: Scoring streak continues

Of course, the match wouldn't have been memorable had Karim Benzema not arrived to leave his mark.

With Real Madrid trailing 2-0, Benzema brought the visitors back with a patented strike, meeting Ferland Mendy's cross with a whipped delivery that kicked off the turf and found the back of the net past a diving Ederson.

It was the fourth straight Champions League knockout match with a goal for Benzema, and he was not close to done.

WATCH THE BENZEMA GOAL: UK | USACanada | Australia


That immaculate Phil Foden touch

While it didn't result in a goal, Phil Foden wowed the Etihad crowd with a stunning touch that kept the ball from flying over his head and going out of play.

A ball from deep looked destined to sail over his head and cross the end line for a goal kick, but Foden stuck out his leg and deftly deadened the delivery to keep it at his toes and in play.


Fernandinho's adventures at right back

Before halftime, emergency right back John Stones was withdrawn and replaced by 36-year-old Fernandinho. Stones was carrying a muscle injury and couldn't carry on past the 36th minute.

Fans on social media began speculating that soon-to-be 37-year-old Fernandinho, would be eaten alive by 21-year-old Vinicius Jr on that flank, but halftime came and went without Real Madrid's Brazilian winger troubling his compatriot.

And then after the break, Fernandinho did his part in the attack, feeding Foden for City's third goal, putting the hosts 3-1 up.

WATCH FODEN'S GOAL: USA | Canada | Australia


Vinicius Jr's dummy nutmeg ends Fernandinho

While Fernandinho received compliments for his delivery to Foden for the third City goal, it came undone just two minutes later, and the Brazilian came down to Earth.

Vinicius Jr finally cropped up on the wing, making a run on the ball all the way from the halfway line to score Real Madrid's second and bring the Spanish side back within one. His move to get by Fernandinho was exquisite, and the young Madrid winger burst through the entire attacking half before finding the back of the net.

Pep Guardiola, who showed his emotions on his sleeve all match, reacted as if he'd been stabbed in the heart after Vinicius clowned Fernandinho. He knew what was about to happen before it did.

WATCH THE VINICIUS GOAL: UK | USACanada | Australia


Bernardo Silva into the top corner

The incredible goals were not over.

As De Bruyne was hacked to the ground by a clumsy Toni Kroos tackle at the top of the penalty area, everyone was expecting a foul to be called. Although the referee put his whistle to his mouth, he allowed play to continue for advantage. That was all Man City midfielder Bernardo Silva needed to produce a howitzer for a 4-2 Man City lead.

Romanian official Istvan Kovacs was lauded by fans for playing advantage when he could have easily given Man City a free kick, but that would have robbed the match of this amazing moment.

WATCH THE SILVA GOAL: UK | USACanada | Australia


Benzema pulls off a ... PANENKA!

You'd be forgiven for thinking the match was dusted at that point, with Man City pummeling the Real Madrid back line and the match already at 4-2 in the 74th minute.

But with just eight minutes left in regulation, Real Madrid again had a lifeline. Aymeric Laporte, rising into the air for a header in the penalty area, saw the ball glance off his head and then off his outstretched arm, and the referee pointed to the spot for a penalty. VAR had a look, but the decision stood, as Laporte's arm was risen high into the air in an unnatural position.

Benzema, who has missed a healthy number of penalties throughout the season, including two in the previous league outing, stepped up and calmly delivered a cheeky Panenka chip down the middle, leaving Ederson baffled on the turf.

WATCH THE BENZEMA PANENKA: UK | USACanada | Australia

 

It felt like every moment was better than the previous one. But there were a few that didn't materialize. Man City had plenty of other chances and will probably rue the fact that they didn't put a few more goals away now that they hit the road for the second leg.

On one of those occasions, Guardiola lost it on the sideline when Riyad Mahrez didn't pass the ball in the first half on a chance that hit the side netting.

But the most incredible miss came just after halftime as Mahrez, again free on goal, blasted his shot against the post before Real Madrid defender Dani Carvajal blocked Foden's follow-up attempt.

The atmosphere at the Etihad was electric and there's no reason why the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu won't provide an equal setting. 

The league leader in Spain against the league leader in England. We probably shouldn't have been surprised this Champions League semifinal turned out like it did.

Author(s)
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Kyle Bonn is a soccer content producer for The Sporting News.