MANCHESTER CITY VS REAL MADRID: 5 THINGS WE LEARNED
It was a rough night for any Madridista who identifies as an eternal optimist. One can’t point fingers at their glass half-full approach as well, considering Real Madrid’s record in the Champions League, flashbacks of Wolfsburg and Zinedine Zidane. However, this optimism was flawed to a degree, considering the absences of a certain Cristiano Ronaldo who singlehandedly annihilated Wolfsburg and the face of Madrid’s impregnable aura, Sergio Ramos suspended. Not to mention, the prospect of doing a job on one of Europe’s elite at their backyard after conceding twice at home.
What ensued was the anthesis of a vintage Los Blancos performance in the Champions League as Manchester City outthought and outplayed Madrid-plain and simple. A 2-1 victory leaves the Citizens elated but wanting for more which paints an accurate portrait of the contest.
A Raphaël Varane horror show summed up Madrid on the night: poor, unconvincing and uninspired as the seasoned French centre-half was everything but the ice-cool, seasoned pro he’s hailed as.
Despite a brilliant Karim Benzema equalizer, goals from Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling were enough to book City a quarter-final date with Lyon as Zidane lost the first knockout game in his coaching career.
Here are the 5 things we learned from the game everyone had their eyes glued to.
Pep was two steps ahead of Zidane and it showed
At the Bernabéu, Pep Guardiola’s mad genius was on show as he threw a tactical spanner in the works, starting Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva as false 9s and deploying Gabriel Jesus in a left wing-back role. Despite the usual and justified accusations pointing to Guardiola being guilty of overthinking another European knockout, any and every detractor had to eat their share of humble pie as it was a tactical masterclass. 149 days after Champions League football returned, Pep was prepared yet again.
Despite how the team sheets read, you’d have to be a brave man to bet on Phil Foden starting as a false 9 with Jesus and Sterling occupying the wide areas. However, this is exactly what happened and as the usual detractors looked to be making a scathing comeback, 10 minutes into the contest, Jesus harried Varane on the left channel to surrender the ball and teed up Sterling to tap the opener in. Foden and Jesus’ industry was worth it’s weight in gold and the very reason behind why Madrid were so poor in playing the ball out from the back and gaining any sort of momentum throughout the clash.
In the matches leading up to the heavyweight battle against Madrid (against Watford and Norwich), a major takeaway from the games was how Foden is versatile enough to thrive on both wings which gives Sterling the option to switch flanks, something he hasn’t been able to do all season after Leroy Sané’s injury, an element that deterred his performances at the end of last year. The key to the Raheem Sterling transformation in the 2017-18 campaign was him operating and blossoming as a right-winger and in the first 45 against Los Merengues, the England international tormented Éder Militão in that right-sided inside forward position. Riyad Mahrez is an out-and-out right-winger and for all of his wizardry, he lacks the same industry and versatility as Foden.
Zidane was left scratching his head and as he send his troops out after his half-time team talk, studying every intricacy of City’s fluid front three, Guardiola switched things up again to a more traditional triumvirate and their No.9 in Gabby Jesus this time around capped his manager’s tactical prowess off with a world-class finish.
Is Varane ready to take the reins from Ramos?
A lurking Gabriel Jesus sealed Zinedine Zidane’s first elimination from the Champions League and it was his reliable defender who brought this fate upon him. Jürgen Klopp’s heavy metal style seems to be the very standard for the high press in world football, but Pep Guardiola’s sides have always been the toughest teams to play through, let alone from the back.
City’s intense pressing game forced Real into numerous mistakes, with the French World Cup winner, Raphaël Varane in particular unable to cope with the pressing of Gabriel Jesus. Twice. When partnered with club captain Sergio Ramos, there aren’t many defensive pairings in European football better than the two, but a red card in the first leg meant Varane had to be Real’s anchor in a defence that hasn’t put a foot wrong this season. The Catalonian manager did do a tactical job on Zidane, for a second game running, but he was aided by not his, but Zidane’s player.
Would the result have been different if the Spanish centre-half had started? We can only contemplate, but a comedy of errors at the grandest stage in club football says it out loud- Varane still needs grooming.
Bossed Real in Madrid and Manchester: Being Gabriel Jesus
When Guardiola decided to put his faith into Jesus at the Bernabéu in City’s biggest game of the season, eyebrows were raised. The club’s all-time goalscorer, a man made for the biggest occasions in Sergio Agüero was benched. A five-star performance as a left wing-back, a towering header and getting Ramos sent off later, Jesus had blocked all the noise and let the football do his talking. As Madrid arrived with a mission in Manchester, their all-conquering gladiator in Sergio Ramos had to powerlessly witness the Brazilian do a job on his team once again and this time his witness was another defensive extraordinaire, Raphaël Varane.
Sure, Varane was the architect of his own downfall but it was Jesus’ high-octane pressing that forced the Frenchman to fumble and ultimately crumble. Jesus’ workrate was rewarded as he bagged a simple assist for Sterling’s tap in. But he wasn’t done yet.
Throughout the first-half, the Brazilian international was getting stuck in, winning headers, clearing the ball and doing the dirty work, an aspect that may go unnoticed for all his exploits up top. As the tie was on a knife edge and City squandering chances had a sense of déjà vu to it, Jesus refused to give up on a Rodri punt, Varane made a meal of a routine clearance and Gabby’s finish past Thibaut Courtois was on the verge of arrogance with his weak foot. That’s how good it was, that’s how good he was.
The man of the tie.
Eden Hazard might just not be enough
There haven’t been many times in football when Eden Hazard wasn’t the best player on the pitch. Against the Sky Blues however, he wasn’t even the best Belgian on the Etihad turf, outclassed by Kevin De Bruyne. The ex-Chelsea man’s impact in the deciding leg was minimal and it showed. Los Blancos failed to create chances while their talisman in the No. 9 shirt had to drop deep to make up for the Belgian’s dip in form. For all his shoulder drops and body feints in England’s top tier, Real’s newest big money man looks like he did forget to bring along his flair, finesse and fitness while packing for the Spanish capital.
An off-game is allowed to even the best of the lot, but his has been the story throughout the season. A weary Hazard paints a picture of a man bridled by injuries. Along with defending the Spanish crown and re-asserting their royalty in the European competition, Zidane has a job on his hand to somehow make the brilliant Belgian find his flow and do what he does best, leaving defenders in their wake.
Kyle Walker is far too underrated and he exactly showed why
For all of Trent Alexander-Arnold’s attacking excellence and Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s defensive mastery, Kyle Walker is perhaps the most balanced right-back in the country. Sadly, he doesn’t get the respect he deserves and what has been a quietly brilliant campaign has gone under the radar. On the grandest of stages, Walker showcased exactly why even at 30 years of age, he continues to be ace and a name Gareth Southgate mustn’t neglect so easily as he has in his recent call-ups.
95 touches, 7 duels won, 9 recoveries made and 2 dribbles completed. These are just some of the numbers from what was a masterclass from the former Spurs defender. You’d think Eden Hazard was on the bench with how quiet he was all evening as Walker made light work of one of the most skillful widemen in Europe.
Switching between his full-back role and operating in the middle of the park, Walker was seamless, making the inch-perfect challenges when needed while also constantly winning his aerial duels to set off a City attack and always being available for a pass. Simply put, he was everywhere.
And if he had his shooting boots on, his dash from the middle of the park where he sat down a couple of Madrid defenders would have done justice to what was a flawless performance. While the likes of Sterling and Jesus will grab the headlines, Walker deservedly won the official Man of the Match.
Immense all evening.