Real Madrid's Champions League magic finally runs out - so how do Los Blancos close the gap to Man City?

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The 14-time European champions were thrashed by Pep Guardiola's side in this season's semi-finals, and they could now be set for a summer of change

After Manchester City scored the first of their four goals at a raucous Etihad Stadium on Wednesday, Real Madrid were very clearly rattled. Vinicius Jr complained and gesticulated to manager Carlo Ancelotti, while Karim Benzema gathered the team in a huddle.

It was all ragged. Los Blancos, supposedly the semblance of calm in the Champions League, were showing the same signs of panic that a litany of Premier League teams that show up to City's home ground do every week. And it only got worse from there. City would hit the Madrid net three more times before it was all done, the experienced Spanish side looking increasingly disparate with every goal.

For City, this was a proper arrival. The Cityzens, this nation-state-assisted unit, have flirted with Champions League glory for nearly 10 years now. They have come close on many occasions, of course, notably losing in the 2021 final after one of the great Pep Guardiola acts of psyching oneself out. With Inter set as their opponents in the decider, though, this looks more likely than any other to finally be their year.

For Madrid, though, this looked an awful lot like an end. Los Blancos will still be a major player in European football - clubs of this magnitude do not simply drop out of contention. But in Manchester, in this fashion, it looked like the last chapter of one of Europe's great sides.

This mix of old and young was a near-identical XI to the one that beat Liverpool in the Champions League final in 2022. On Wednesday, the older members looked their age, while the juvenile group looked as inexperienced as their ages suggest. For players wearing any other shirt, being outclassed by Europe's most terrifying team away from home is perhaps forgivable. But this is Real Madrid, a team that has won five of the last nine Champions Leagues. Semi-final appearances alone are disappointments.

This might be the last realistic chance of European glory for Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema and Dani Carvajal. All four are still excellent footballers, but showed on Wednesday that they cannot be counted on to win the biggest of games anymore. Poor showings are allowed in most cases, but you are not allowed to have those if you play for Real Madrid. And if you happen to do so, it better not be against Man City in the Champions League semi-final.

So, the changes will come. A manager might be sacked, and players will be moved on and brought in. Positions may be readjusted, tactics could even be tweaked. But how does this all come together, what moves can actually be made to revamp — not necessarily rebuild — a still-promising side?

GOAL takes a look at how Madrid can get back to their usual level and attempt to close the widening gap between them and City...

  1. Say a fond farewell to Ancelotti
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    Say a fond farewell to Ancelotti

    Thanks for the memories, Carlo. Word is, there might be an opportunity in Rio...

    Ancelotti insisted after Wednesday's game that he is not going anywhere, and that he plans to see out his Madrid contract until it expires in 2024. He has earned the right to leave Santiago Bernabeu — or any job, for that matter — on his own terms. After all, this is a manager who has won every one of Europe's top five leagues and four Champions Leagues over a glittering coaching career.

    He has survived and adapted to different eras of coaching, taken on parts of different styles while proving that others can be remarkably easy to beat. In a sense, this Madrid side is his masterpiece. At their best, this is a perfectly harmonious group of 11 players who are patient out of possession and devastating in it. Ancelotti has made them tick by helping instil a mentality, and then letting them play.

    But as Wednesday showed, that isn't as reliable as it used to be. The signs that Ancelotti should perhaps move on have been there for a good chunk of this season. Madrid have stagnated in La Liga, and could end the season in third, 20 points behind Barcelona. This tie, then, was supposed to be the signature win he could point to from this strange campaign to keep himself in the job.

    Instead, his team were battered. This isn't necessarily Ancelotti's fault — no one can stop City at the moment. Still, a change of coach might have to be the answer here. Identifying the right man for the job is difficult, and two top-tier managers have been snatched off the market in the last three months in Thomas Tuchel and Mauricio Pochettino.

    But Ancelotti's time in Madrid might be up. He could at least save face by taking the Brazil job, with the Selecao publicly pining for his hiring.

  2. Move the old guard on

    Move the old guard on

    Madrid have relied on experience in the Champions League for a number of years now. And with every season that passes, a veteran gets moved on. Cristiano Ronaldo, Casemiro, Sergio Ramos and Marcelo have all seen Champions League glory and departed with various levels of dignity.

    The last four of those serial winners are just about clinging on here. Kroos, Modric and Benzema have all signed or about to sign new one-year contracts, while Carvajal's deal expires in 2024, too. And while they will undoubtedly be in the running again next year, it's hard to see this group improving on this result — especially with a likely new slate of Champions League contenders potentially making runs in the competition next year.

    The aforementioned quartet aren't necessarily holding Real Madrid back, but perhaps they should be gracefully edged out of the door. Kroos' defensive frailties were badly exposed at the Etihad, while Modric was uncharacteristically leggy and looked scared on the ball. Carvajal, meanwhile, was run ragged by a swaggering Jack Grealish. Benzema, for his part, hardly got a kick.

    It is too impulsive to simply sell all four, or faze all of them out within the next 12 months, even. But Madrid should look towards the future, and start to work some young players, such as Aurelien Tchouameni or Eduardo Camavinga, into the starting line up more regularly.

  3. Hey, Jude
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    Hey, Jude

    It's a good thing, then, that one of the presumptive reinforcements is all-but committed to the Madrid project already. If reports are to be believed, Madrid have a personal agreement with Jude Bellingham. The finances will be tricky, especially given the gaudy price tag Dortmund have slapped on the England midfielder. But Los Blancos will pay up. For the right fit, they always do.

    Exactly where he plays remains to be seen. Bellingham should slot anywhere into this midfield, and long-term could be the perfect third point of a component of a Tchouameni-Valverde trio. There is also an argument to be made that he could be a perfect No.10 in a reworked system.

    Regardless, this is an instant-impact plauer. Bellingham might not lift Madrid to the stratospheric heights of prime Modric and Kroos. In fact, the team might not ever reach them again. But he is a major component of setting them on that track, starting immediately.

  4. Sign a striker
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    Sign a striker

    There should also be additions elsewhere. Benzema is a brilliant striker and a Ballon d'Or winner. He can still score at a frightening rate, and has a mastery of space and off-ball movement like few other strikers. But the Frenchman didn't look fit across these two legs and was held scoreless.

    The reality is, Benzema is entering his late 30s, and has endured persistent muscle injuries this year. Here is a player that needs to be shielded, bubble-wrapped for the big games. Madrid, then, need someone who can handle the games in between — or at least chip in.

    There are going to be plenty of big names on the market this summer, and there is always the lurking possibility of Madrid going in for their the player they covet more than any other, Kylian Mbappe. That doesn't need to happen, though - not now.

    Still, goals need to come from elsewhere, and there are one or two affordable No.9s on the market. Los Blancos would be wise to take advantage. It could well pay off soon.

  5. Make Vini the face of it all

    Make Vini the face of it all

    It has become clear, over the course of this season, that Ballon d'Or winning Benzema is no longer the face of this team. Certainly, he grabs headlines and scores goals, but the most impactful player on a more consistent basis is the winger he famously claimed was playing against Madrid, rather than for them.

    Vinicius is not without his critics, especially among rival fans — and often for the worst of reasons. Now, though, he should be made the face of this Madrid team. The Brazilian already has the flash and swagger of a superstar, and when Benzema has been out, Los Blancos have started to play through him, anyway. It's now time to set that up properly, to gear their side to getting their best player on the ball as much as possible.

    There are still some issues to be figured out here. Vinicius hasn't officially signed a new contract and his current deal expires in 2024. Meanwhile, he could also do with toning down his reaction to opponents who clearly know how to rattle him. But these are fixable. Madrid just need to make sure the system is in place.

  6. Believe in the magic
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    Believe in the magic

    When quizzed about Wednesday's result following the game, Thierry Henry asserted that he was not worried about Real Madrid. As he put it: "They are always here competing...regardless of when it is."

    And the former Barcelona man has a point. Madrid have won the Champions League more times than any other club, and have made 11 of the last 13 semi-finals. They have won the competition at least once every decade, and have never failed to make it out of the group stage. Although this seems like the end of a famous side, the club has the pedigree and talent to be in the mix every year.

    Madrid's run to the Champions League final last year was often interpreted as lucky, or a fluke. And they were, admittedly, fortunate at times. But these runs are not merely pieced together. Superior sides are not easily beaten with a freak bounce or opponent's error.

    There is a strange aura to Los Blancos in the Champions League, an ability to find another gear on European nights. Since Ancelotti took over, it has been largely due to the mentality that he instilled in the team. Before that, it was down to sound tactics and an elite squad.

    The fact is, Real Madrid will always be in contention. In a rare occasion of a footballing cliche holding true, it's just part of their DNA. Believe in that, and this revamp may not be as dramatic as some expect.