Manchester City’s dreams of Champions League glory depend on Erling Haaland being the difference in the games he was expected to win, says Paul Merson.
City will head to the Santiago Bernabeu on Tuesday night to avenge last year’s painful semi-final run against 14-time champions Real Madrid and stay on course for Europe’s maiden crown.
A record summer signing, Haaland has scored an incredible 51 goals in all competitions this season to put City within reach of the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League treble.
Merson believes City’s hopes of reaching a second Champions League final rest solely on Haaland’s shoulders.
“Haaland has been brought to Manchester City for the moment,” he said Sky Sports. Will he feel the pressure? I don’t think he felt any pressure.
“He wasn’t brought in to win the league five out of six seasons, he was brought in to do something Manchester City never did. He was brought in to be the difference against Real Madrid.
“If you consider the two teams, when they met last season, Karim Benzema was probably the only player who would have made a Manchester City team. Now, with Haaland at City, that’s not the case. This is a game changer.
“Haaland was brought in to win the Champions League and I think he will be the difference. I don’t understand how Real Madrid defenders live with him. Sometimes they are rash and like to dive.
“I can’t imagine Haaland not scoring in two games, I’d be amazed if he didn’t. If he doesn’t score, I don’t see Manchester City progress.
“Haaland has already scored 50 goals this season, but the pressure is on this game, that’s how it works as a centre-forward. The hardest job in the world is scoring goals, that’s why they get big money and there aren’t many of them around, certainly not showing their details.”
Madrid advantage in the first match?
Merson believes Real Madrid have a slight advantage before kicking the ball after being drawn to play the first leg of the semi-final against Manchester City at home.
“Being away from home for the first leg is a huge disadvantage for Manchester City as playing the second leg at home is no longer as beneficial as it used to be,” he said.
“If City had played at home first, I would have been shocked if they had not progressed to the final, but the disadvantage that Real Madrid previously had has now disappeared as the away goals rule has been dropped. With no away goals, the advantage is that the team plays at home first.
“If Real Madrid had gone and won that game 2-1, it wouldn’t have been a shock at the Bernabeu because it’s Real Madrid after all, Manchester City face them at the Etihad. When the away goals rule was in force, such a result would have been good for Manchester City.
“In the past, the visiting team had an advantage, even if they lost 2-1 in the first leg, because it was enough to win 1-0 at home to go through. Now they need to win 2-0 to move on. .
“It’s a big advantage for Real Madrid in this match as they could practically come out of a draw after losing at the Etihad if the games were the other way around.
“I don’t understand the rules anymore. UEFA changed the rules so much that they took away the away goals advantage and gave it to the home team. The problem these days is that all you have to do is have a bad 45 minutes in a competition and you’re out.”
Final in the semi-finals?
Merson believes the semi-final winners of Real Madrid and Manchester City will win the Champions League in Istanbul on June 10.
“If Manchester City beats Real Madrid in two legs and then doesn’t beat AC Milan or Inter Milan in the final, they will never win the Champions League!” he added.
“Football is a fun game but you’d be shocked if the winners of this tie didn’t lift the trophy.”
Key Battle: Walker vs. Vinicius Jr
As to where the draw will be won and where it will be lost, Merson believes Manchester City could virtually seal progress if they keep Vinicius Jr. a secret.
“If Manchester City can stop Vinicius Jr., they will win this tie. To achieve that, Kyle Walker has to play,” he said.
“Real Madrid have a much better chance without Walker on the pitch. Last season, that tie was turned upside down when he went off the field.
“Walker has been in and out of the team in recent weeks but City have not come across a player as good as Vinicius. If they can nail him, City will have a great chance and Walker is the only player with the ability to do so.
“Bayern Munich had a good, good chance against City in the quarter-final away match and was unlucky not to win that match. If Real Madrid play like this, create those chances, they have a better winger in Vinicius Jr. and a better centre-back striker Benzema, so these chances will end with goals.
“There are horses for the tracks and Walker is a great defender. At the Bernabeu, where they will have to defend for a long time, they will need defenders.”