MANCHESTER – It was the coolest of penalties at the end of one of the wildest matches in Champions League history.
With his cheekily dispatched “Panenka,” Karim Benzema might just have kept Real Madrid's chances alive against Manchester City in the semifinals.
City won a breathless first-leg match 4-3 at Etihad Stadium on Tuesday but squandered so many chances in an end-to-end, basketball-style epic that it hardly felt like a victory for the English club.
“We could have killed them off,” said Phil Foden, one of City's four scorers in a game that had pretty much everything.
City built a two-goal lead three times but just couldn’t shake off Madrid, the kings of the competition — as City manager Pep Guardiola calls them.
So it felt inevitable that when Aymeric Laporte gave away a penalty with 10 minutes remaining, Madrid wouldn't waste the opportunity to return to Santiago Bernabeu for next week's second leg with, somehow, only a one-goal deficit.
Just when many inside the stadium were losing their heads, Benzema kept his, chipping the ball high and straight down the middle before wheeling away in front of Madrid's jubilant fans with his arms outstretched.
“The most important thing is we never lay down our arms,” Benzema said. “We are all in this until the end.”
With the France striker in its team, Madrid will never lose hope.
His double here — after back-to-back hat tricks earlier in the knockout stage — took his total in the Champions League this season to a competition-high 14 goals. Benzema now has 41 goals in all competitions in the most prolific season of his career.
Without him, Madrid probably would not be still in with a chance of a record-extending 14th European Cup title.
“Madrid is just Madrid," Guardiola said. "It doesn’t matter if you are one goal, two goals or three goals ahead.”
Guardiola didn't have a bad word to say about his team, though. “Exceptional” was his verdict.
But he surely knows City should be out of sight and already preparing for a second straight appearance in the final and the chance to avenge last year's loss to Chelsea.
The English champions led 2-0 after 11 minutes, with Kevin De Bruyne making a late run into the box to head home Riyad Mahrez's cross and Gabriel Jesus — retained in the team after scoring four goals against Watford in the Premier League on Saturday — producing a coolly taken finish after spinning David Alaba following De Bruyne's cross.
Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti lost 5-0 on his previous visit to the Etihad — with Everton on the final day of last season’s Premier League — and City looked like scoring just as many, if not more.
With Madrid fielding a ball-playing midfield — of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Federico Valverde — that lacked the bite of injured Casemiro, City cut through the visitors at will and should have been further clear before Benzema steered a volley in off the post from Ferland Mendy's cross in the 33rd.
Riyad Mahrez wasted gilt-edged chances either side of Benzema's goal to leave Guardiola enraged on the sideline, the first in the 26th when he swung wildly when one-on-one with goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and hit the sidenetting, and then just after the restart when he raced through again and curled against the post.
It would have come as a relief to Mahrez that Foden restored City’s two-goal lead in the 53rd, heading home a cross from the overlapping Fernandinho — the 36-year-old club captain who went on at right back for the injured John Stones near the end of the first half.
Back came Madrid two minutes later, with Vinicius Junior turning Fernandinho — showing his fallibility in an unfamiliar position — near the halfway line and sprinting down the left before cutting in and placing a shot beyond Ederson. Laporte chose not to close down Vinicius, instead covering the potential cross into a middle, though that wouldn't be his biggest mistake of the night.
The chances kept coming, mostly for City, before Bernardo Silva curled a rising shot inside the near post after quick-witted referee Istvan Kovacs decided to play the advantage following a foul on Oleksandr Zinchenko outside the area.
Benzema had the final say, however, like he has so many times in this season's competition, and Madrid has renewed belief of reaching a first final since 2018.
“It is a defeat,” Ancelotti said, “that leaves us alive in the second leg.”
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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80