MANCHESTER, England — At times, the pressure of winning the Champions League has seemed too much for Manchester City's players to bear.
Real Madrid, on the other hand, keeps on setting new standards in European club soccer's elite competition.
That contrast between the rivals is just one of the reasons why Wednesday's Champions League semifinal is so compelling, with the game delicately poised at 1-1 after the first leg.
City has spent more than $1 billion on some of the world’s greatest talent, but the club has repeatedly fallen short on Europe's biggest stage.
Not even Pep Guardiola — a two-time winner as coach of Barcelona — has been able to change that. And with each passing year, the pressure on him grows to win the one major trophy to elude City under the ownership of Abu Dhabi's ruling family.
“The club is missing that one (trophy), and (with) the owners and the amount of money they have pumped into this club and the investment they have done, we owe that to them,” City defender Kyle Walker said Tuesday.
There is nothing to separate the teams after the first leg in Madrid last week, and the winner will be the favorite to lift the trophy. Inter Milan and AC Milan played in the other semifinal Tuesday, with Inter leading 2-0 from the first leg.
Guardiola did not share Walker's opinion about the debt that needs to be repaid to City's owners. He has consistently dismissed suggestions that there is undue pressure on him to deliver the Champions League, having dominated English soccer during his seven years in charge.
“My legacy is already exceptional,” he said. “We have been here many times. We are not stupid; we know how important it is. Maybe one of the most important (games) since we are together for the competition, the rival and many things."
Guardiola is on the brink of leading City to a fifth Premier League title in six years and is in contention to win a treble of trophies this season, including the Champions League and FA Cup.
If anything, it has felt like Guardiola has heaped the pressure on himself to conquer Europe for a third time as a manager. That expectation has appeared to affect his team's performances at crunch points in this competition.
City's exits have come in some of the wildest circumstances and generally against opponents they were expected to beat, such as Monaco, Tottenham and Lyon.
Winning positions have repeatedly been squandered, with none more dramatic than last year's loss in the second leg of the semifinals against Madrid, when City led 5-3 on aggregate going into the 90th minute at the Bernabeu but proceeded to lose 6-5 after extra time.
By contrast, Madrid has found ways to get itself out of the tightest spots in the European Cup, having won it a record 14 times. The Spanish giant has been in 11 semifinals in the past 13 years.
If City has choked on too many occasions, no club relishes the big occasion more than Madrid.
“It is special for Real Madrid because of the history we have in the tournament,” coach Carlo Ancelotti said. “It is a club that has a special power to stay alive.”
It has been 12 years since Guardiola last won the Champions League with Barcelona. Despite coaching two of Europe's most powerful teams in Bayern Munich and City in that time, he has only reached one more final — losing to Chelsea in 2021.
He has never won the competition without the aid of Lionel Messi, who was the driving force of his Barcelona team.
“If you think you are the best team in the world, it doesn’t make it 100% sure you’ll win,” Ancelotti said when it was put to him that many believe City to be the finest team in Europe right now. “It’s not just quality in a semifinal. It can be personality, mentality, character.”
Wednesday's game could show how much City has learned from its disappointments in Europe.
It showed its maturity in the first leg in coming away with a 1-1 draw after Madrid dominated for long periods.
City's home record in the Champions League will also be a source of encouragement, having gone 25 games without a loss at Etihad Stadium.
“I’ve told the players to live it as a huge opportunity and enjoy the moment," Guardiola said. "We are incredibly lucky to be here. It’s in our hands; it depends on us. We don’t have to do anything exceptional — just be ourselves and win one game to reach the final.
“We’ll do everything. I have an incredible feeling about the team."