Real Madrid players celebrate after wining the Champions League quarterfinal...

Real Madrid players celebrate after wining the Champions League quarterfinal second leg soccer match between Manchester City and Real Madrid at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, England, Wednesday, April 17, 2024. Credit: AP/Dave Thompson

BARCELONA, Spain — Antonio Rudiger stared down the goalkeeper, took a deep breath, and drilled home the decisive penalty, proving once again there is no tougher task in club soccer than beating Real Madrid in the Champions League.

Madrid’s victory over Manchester City after a penalty shootout on Wednesday sent it to a record 17th semifinal appearance and kept it on course to add to its unequaled haul of 14 European Cups.

It was fitting that Rudiger finished off City after he anchored a spirited defensive effort by Madrid that weathered wave after wave of attacks by Pep Guardiola’s side.

For Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti, it was a question of survival.

“There was only one way to get out of here alive. We had to dig in and fight hard,” Ancelotti said. “We showed the attitude and commitment demanded by this jersey. This is a very special competition for us and we always deliver something that people are not expecting us to produce. Everyone was writing us off but we’re still here.”

Those soccer purists who delight in Guardiola's passing-and-pressure game (think Barcelona fans) like to say Madrid lacks a distinctive style. But as Ancelotti has said, he doesn’t want his team to have a “set philosophy” that would make it predictable; his team must be chameleonic so it can adapt to each rival, each game, each moment.

Madrid’s top scorer Jude Bellingham credited Ancelotti with letting his players expose their individual talents in order to make the team versatile.

Real Madrid's Antonio Rudiger scores the winning penalty during the...

Real Madrid's Antonio Rudiger scores the winning penalty during the penalty shootout against Manchester City following the Champions League quarterfinal, second leg soccer match at the Etihad Stadium, in Manchester, England, Wednesday, April 17, 2024. Credit: AP/Mike Egerton

“I think our biggest strength is that he finds a way to let our boys play with freedom," Bellingham said. "Some teams are a bit more structured in terms of their passing styles and their patterns of play. And it is really interesting to watch and it is definitely difficult to play against, but I think one of our biggest strengths is that we are so off the cuff.”

City completely dominated the ball in the away leg of their quarterfinal in Manchester – even though it never led and needed Kevin De Bruyne to cancel out Rodrygo’s opener – and hemmed mighty Madrid into its box for most of the match and extra time.

But Madrid showed that its strength lies in its ability to do whatever is needed to get a win. Ancelotti’s bunch matched City’s scoring prowess last week in the 3-3 draw in Spain’s capital, and then at Etihad Stadium it had no qualms packing its area and hanging on for dear life.

Rudiger solidified his status as Madrid’s sheriff at the back. The Germany player has also helped Madrid lead the Spanish league after fellow central defenders David Alaba and Eder Militao went down with injury earlier in the season.

Manchester City's goalkeeper Ederson, right, fails to save the ball...

Manchester City's goalkeeper Ederson, right, fails to save the ball as Real Madrid's Antonio Rudiger scores the winning penalty during a penalty shootout during the Champions League quarterfinal second leg soccer match between Manchester City and Real Madrid at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, England, Wednesday, April 17, 2024. Credit: AP/Dave Shopland

Last season, when City beat Madrid in the semifinal on its way to winning the title, Rudiger was left on the bench at the start of a 4-0 loss in Manchester. This time, he played both legs that ended 4-4 on aggregate.

De Bruyne’s equalizer came after Rudiger’s only blemish of an otherwise superb outing when the City midfielder fired in a ball the defender failed to clear. Otherwise, Rudiger bossed the area and again kept Erling Haaland scoreless.

“Normally, we’re the ones who dominate our opponents,” said Nacho Fernández, Rudiger’s partner in central defense who also scored in the shootout. “We showed the other side, defending spectacularly and doing an incredible job in the lower-middle block.”

And when City’s talented passers did manage to create a rare opening in Madrid’s box, there was Andriy Lunin to stop them.

The Ukrainian goalkeeper entered the preseason as the backup to the injured Courtois Thibaut and had to earn the starting job after Kepa Arrizabalaga's arrival. Lunin was the team’s saviour on Wednesday night after stopping penalties by Bernardo Silva and Mateo Kovacic. His saves tilted the shootout in Madrid’s favor after Luka Modric missed their first kick.

Rudiger may have even played a part in Lunin's save of Kovacic's try. Rudiger gestured to Lunin that Kovacic, who Rudiger played with at Chelsea, would shoot to Lunin's right — and he was right.

Lunin said he was “exhausted” after helping to defend 18 corners – to one for Madrid – and absorb 34 goal attempts by City.

“You can’t always play with the ball or be the best team on the pitch,” Lunin said. “It was an amazing experience for me and the team put in an incredible effort for the 120 minutes.”

Guardiola praised his team's effort and recognized that to best Madrid, which also knocked his team out two years ago when Rodrygo sparked a late comeback, required more than just a good game.

“To beat Real Madrid, we had to perform our best,” the Catalan coach said. "We were our best but it was not enough.”

The mettle showed by Madrid contrasts with the fragility in defense of its next rival: Barcelona visits on Sunday in a league clasico.

Barcelona was, likewise, ahead by a goal against Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday before Ronald Araújo’s tackle outside the area with only the goalie to beat earned him a direct red card. Without its best one-on-one defender, Barcelona fell apart and conceded four unanswered goals – including two to Kylian Mbappé, the star linked to a move to Madrid.

Barcelona’s trip to the Santiago Bernabeu will be its last chance to breathe some life into its Spanish league title defense. A win at its fierce rival would reduce Madrid’s advantage to five points with six more rounds remaining.

But Madrid measures the success of its season on whether or not it wins the Champions League. Next up it will face Bayern Munich in another classic continental rivalry.

“We’re delighted, but we’re very tired,” Ancelotti said. “Now we have to celebrate because it’s a very important qualification. From (Thursday) we have to prepare well for Sunday’s game. The clasico is crucial for the league.”

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