Most teams who have faced Manchester City this season have entered the game with the same question dominating pre-game preparation: how the hell do we stop Erling Haaland?
The 22-year-old Norwegian has broken records galore this season, scoring 35 goals in just 32 Premier League appearances, on top of 12 from nine in the Champions League.
City travelled to Madrid to face the might of Real on Tuesday night, in a repeat of last season's semi-final clash. The main difference between last year's meeting and this one was the presence of Haaland in the City frontline, posing a huge question to Real manager Carlo Ancelotti as to how to handle the goalscoring sensation.
His answer was to task Antonio Rudiger with what came close to a man-marking extravaganza at the Bernabeu - a task the German handled perfectly. Video footage from the stands showed the rather unusual methods which Rudiger used to get into Haaland's head in the first-leg, with the ex-Chelsea centre back appearing to stick his head by Haaland's midriff - visibly frustrating the Norwegian.
Rudiger really wanted to know what deodorant Haaland uses pic.twitter.com/qhAVXX406c
— 101 Great Goals (@101greatgoals) May 10, 2023
The bizarre tactic was not necessarily merely a mental one - Haaland's brilliance hinges a great deal on his acceleration, and agility in turning quickly to match through balls from the creative forces in City's midfield. By blocking Haaland from getting goalside of him, Rudiger nullified one of the most dangerous elements of his attacking game.
Speaking after the game, Ancelotti praised Rudiger for a perfectly executed game - but a quick glance over this season shows that stopping Haaland is a rare feat, and will need to be similarly done in the second leg if Real are to stand a chance of reaching the final yet again.
Rudiger and Real show the importance of snuffing out Haaland
Real boss Ancelotti praised Rudiger for coming out on top against Haaland in what was not an easy task for the "experienced" centre back:
Toni Rudiger - excellent, top performance.
He was very good, he's a player with great experience, quality. It wasn't easy but he played very well - I'm so happy with Toni.
Ancelotti: “Toni Rüdiger… excellent. Top performance. He was very good, he’s a player with great experience, quality”. ⚪️🤝🏻 #UCL
“It wasn't easy but he played very well. I’m so happy with Toni”. pic.twitter.com/8zFu9Me1KF
— Fabrizio Romano (@FabrizioRomano) May 9, 2023
It was a mightily impressive feat from Rudiger alright - but the biggest challenge now is repeating the task at the Etihad next Wednesday night.
Of Haaland's nine Champions League appearances this season pre-Bernabeu, only two were goalless. His return to Dortmund saw him hauled off at half-time, while he responded to being held goalless against RB Leipzig by scoring five in the second-leg.
Haaland also poses more problems to defences than his goalscoring - his movement off the ball has become the central pillar of City's attacking play and, even in games where he has not scored, he has often impacted the game enough to help City to win.
The only teams to effectively nullify Haaland this season and entirely mark him out of the game - before Rudiger's masterclass on Tuesday night - were Liverpool in October, and Manchester United in January. There is an argument that Spurs did similar in February, but Haaland posed more of a threat in North London than he did at either Anfield or Old Trafford.
Still, those three games marked three of City's mere four defeats in the Premier League this season (and, in the fourth against Brentford, Haaland was again held goalless) - showing there is something of a correlation between stopping Haaland and stopping Manchester City.
And a mere glance will show that Haaland scored in the return fixture against Spurs, which City won comfortably, and scored three and assisted two in the game against United at the Etihad. Stopping Haaland is one thing - stopping him twice has yet to be done this season.
That is the task ahead of Antonio Rudiger and the Real Madrid defence on Wednesday night. If they can manage to do that, there is every chance they can follow this season's trend and stop City's march to the Champions League final.