Manchester City were unable to take advantage of Cristiano Ronaldo's absence as they played out a goalless draw with Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-final first leg at the Etihad Stadium. Substitute Jese hit the bar and Joe Hart made a flurry of late saves from Casemiro and Pepe to give Manuel Pellegrini's side something tangible to take to the Bernabeu where they must become the first side to score in Europe's top tier club competition this season if they wish to progress.
City mustered just a single shot on target with Keylor Navas a mere spectator for long periods of the game as Real grew as a force, with the hosts tiring after a heroic defensive effort. After Jese was denied by the woodwork, Hart saved with his foot from Casemiro before making a fine save from Pepe's close range effort.
Victory for Real in the second leg on 5 May would put them on course to add to their 10 European Cups, but a score draw or better would be enough to send City into their maiden continental final. The intelligence of the City display - which included the loss of David Silva due to a hamstring injury - should be highly praised however they must couple that stubbornness with attacking ambition in eight days time if Pellegrini is to realise the ambition of ending his final season with the Premier League club with a piece of silverware.
The failure of a late fitness test ensured that Real's evening started in the worst possible fashion as Ronaldo was forced into a watching brief on his return to Manchester. Spanish winger Lucas Vazquez deputised on the right-side of attack spearheaded by the fit-again Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale; playing England for the first time since his move from Tottenham Hotspur in 2013.
City were as expected without former Barcelona midfielder Yaya Toure due to injury, while Raheem Sterling began on the bench as he continued to recover from a groin problem. Skipper Vincent Kompany played in the Champions League for the first time since limping out of the draw with Dynamo Kiev with his latest calf injury.
Even Ronaldo's absence could not dilute the challenge facing a City side playing their first last four tie in the Champions League in their history. The manner in which Real had clawed their way back into the La Liga title race - not least the personnel in their star-studded team and reputation of manager Zinedine Zidane - represented enough of a warning to Pellegrini's men.
And it was a threat which the home side heeded in the opening period of the game. Fernandinho and Fernando crunched into some early tackles, smothering Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, while Bale was restricted to only momentary glimpses of the ball. Kevin de Bruyne and Sergio Aguero meanwhile were leading the press, not allowing Casemiro any time to feed the Real attack.
The scale of the threat posed by Real was emphasised when Bale briefly escaped Gael Clichy but his cross evaded Benzema as Kompany stepped in. Though City were failing to convert their dominance, that factor was offset by the nullifying of the all-star Real forward line which was looking blunt in the absence of Ronaldo.
City were soon without their own talisman as Silva limped off with a hamstring injury which ended his evening prematurely, and throws into major doubt his participation in the second leg. Sterling was overlooked, with Kelechi Iheanacho coming on; a change that did little to alter both teams' intention to play no risk football.
Neither side mustered a single shot on goal in the opening 45 minutes and Real's attempts to break the deadlock suffered a further blow as Jese replaced Benzema at the break. City nevertheless took less than 60 seconds after the restart to show some attacking intent as Aguero lashed over from 20 yards.
Sergio Ramos then registered the first effort on goal, forcing Joe Hart into an easy save after heading on Modric's corner; as the game threatened to burst into life. But that flurry of activity, which included Kompany heading well wide, was a false dawn both sides retreated into their shell.
Of the half chances that were fashioned in the twilight of the game, the lion's share came for Real who struck the woodwork when Dani Carvajal's cross found Jese, who got ahead of Fernandinho as his looping head beat Hart and hit the bar. Modric blasted over and Bale curled wide but they were not the last of the Madrid chances.
Casemiro was denied brilliantly by Hart before the England number one kept out Pepe after Bale's knock-down. City road their luck but held out for a valuable goalless draw to take to Madrid.