Man City’s Haaland takes on Madrid’s attacking trio in CL semis

Manchester City's Erling Haaland celebrates scoring his side's first goal of the game during the FA Cup quarterfinal soccer match at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester, England, Saturday March 18, 2023. (Richard Sellers/PA via AP)
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MADRID (AP) — Two of the best attacking teams in Europe face off in the Champions League semifinals this week, with Manchester City’s record-seeking Erling Haaland going against Real Madrid’s red-hot trio of Vinícius Júnior, Rodrygo and Karim Benzema.

It will be a rematch of last year’s semifinal, when Madrid got the better of a City team that didn’t have Haaland in the squad. City fell short of European success yet again, while Madrid went on to win a record-extending 14th title.

The addition of Haaland could be the difference-maker for Pep Guardiola’s team this time. The 22-year-old Norwegian scored 12 of City’s 26 goals in the Champions League this season. He is five short of Cristiano Ronaldo’s single-season record of 17 goals for Madrid in 2013-14.

Haaland added a new dimension to a City attack that played most of last season without a striker. Instead of focusing on always dominating possession, Guardiola has been happy to use Haaland as a weapon on the counterattack at times. The striker has a Premier League-record 35 goals this season, and 51 in total in all competitions.

Madrid will stick to the formula that has worked well in recent years, with Vinícius, Benzema and Rodrygo taking turns to lead an attack that scored 25 goals in the Champions League this season — 15 of them coming from the trio. They scored eight of the team’s 10 goals in the knockout stage alone.

Last season, Vinícius, Benzema and Rodrygo combined for all six of Madrid’s goals as it advanced past City 6-5 on aggregate in the semifinals. Rodrygo scored the two late goals that took the second leg to extra time at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.

Rodrygo is coming off a two-goal performance in the 2-1 win over Osasuna that gave Madrid the Copa del Rey title on Saturday. Vinícius had an assist and continued to play at a top level. Benzema had a hat trick in Madrid’s 4-2 win against Almeria in the previous Spanish league round.

With the Copa title secured and the league out of reach, Madrid can fully focus on the matchup against City.

“We’re preparing for a big game on Tuesday and we’re heading into it with our morale very high,” coach Carlo Ancelotti said. “We’re going to compete and fight because we’re so close to another final.”

Madrid eliminated two other English clubs in the Champions League this season — Liverpool in the round of 16 and Chelsea in the quarterfinals. City advanced past Leipzig in the last 16 and Bayern Munich in the last eight.

Madrid is making its 11th semifinal appearances in 13 seasons and is trying to win its sixth title in 10 seasons. City played in its first Champions League final two seasons ago, losing to Chelsea.