HARSHAVARDHAN GHADGE | 27th February 2020

Under the lights in the heart of the Spanish capital, Real Madrid hosted the champions of England in what was another Champions League night to remember, especially for the men in sky blue. Santiago Bernabéu, in all of its magnificence packed rows of royal white that were looking forward to an unprecedented 14th European crown, while the Citizens, for whom this is a relatively new territory, were yearning for maiden glory amongst Europe’s elite.

Club football’s most elite competition witnessed a Pep Guardiola tactical masterclass, which left Zinedine Zidane scratching his head.

Despite Madrid kickstarting the goalscoring proceedings after a comedy of errors from Nicolas Otamendi and Kyle Walker gifted Isco the chance to put his side into the lead, the contest was on course for a heroic comeback after Gabriel Jesus and Kevin De Bruyne made sure that the better team deservedly won on the night. While the game was loaded with tackles, near misses and goal line clearances to keep observers on the edges of their seats, what soured the headlines further for Los Blancos was the red card for their leader in white, Sergio Ramos; his 26th sending off in an otherwise illustrious career, a record no one would like to boast of.

Post another successful visit to Madrid, Guardiola added a brilliant first-leg victory to his luggage along with an invaluable two away goals to add to the celebrations back at the Etihad. Los Merengues, however, have work to do in the reverse fixture and to make matters a tad bit more complicated, the Madrid superintendent, Sergio Ramos will have to watch from the box seat.

Zidane’s men have ninety more minutes in Manchester to rectify their shortcomings from their collapse at home and to keep the APorLa14 ambitions alive.

Pep will never stop experimenting as long as he hands out such tactical lessons

After being handed a defeat in the already dead and buried title defence at the hands of his eternal rival, José Mourinho, reports around the club suggested that the players were not happy with the ever changing systems employed by Guardiola and wished to stick to a single style of formation and routine of play. It’s often been said that Zinedine Zidane isn’t the best manager in a tactical sense, and that was shown to be absolutely true on Wednesday night when a masterstroke in how to set up an XI from Pep Guardiola was at play, particularly in the first 45 which meant that Los Blancos were feeding off of scraps. The City gaffer was able to transition from a more defensive set up to begin with, into a sleek, mobile and devastating attacking force as Real were left hopeless and tired at the end of the match.

Guardiola left the experienced trio of Sergio Agüero, David Silva and Fernandinho on the bench alongside the fit-again Raheem Sterling and everyone was left scratching their heads with his team selection. Pep’s bold choice paid off and how. The formation that took a conventional 4-3-3 shape on paper, with Jesus playing up top assisted by Mahrez and Bernardo Silva on the wings, surprisingly turned into a 4-4-2; with their midfield maestros in De Bruyne and Silva playing as false 9s. No fan or pundit alike would’ve estimated this switch in tactics if they had a hundrer guesses. In another surprising pick, Gabriel Jesus was handed the start ahead of City’s prolific goalscoring machine, Sergio Agüero.

In all fairness to Jesus, the Brazilian worked tremendously hard in the first 45, tracking back to his own penalty box to stop Dani Carvajal getting free down the wing, covering the switch of play and helping out Mendy. One would not at fault for saying that the former Palmeiras forward played as left-winger, a left-sided midfielder and also an auxiliary left-back for the most part.

His answer to this tactical decision was that Jesus is better at pressing from wider areas and his aim was to make the pitch as wide as possible in order to ensure that their ball progression was fluid and was opposite to the burly and physical sensibilities of Varane and Ramos. A big call for Guardiola to start the Brazilian over Aguero, but there was clearly a tactical reason for it. Even so, it was in his natural role where Jesus eventually made the difference and score a cracking header. To add to a scintillating night, Jesus capitalized on a piece of poor passing from Madrid to dart past Ramos which the led the Spaniard to bring him down and as a result, sent off.

However, the second major tactical switch of the night that must be noted was when Pep brought on Sterling for Silva and went back to setting his side up in a 4-3-3 shape that proved to be more open and direct. De Bruyne had more space to exploit in the final third and Sterling’s pace and trickery is what led to Carvajal hacking him down in the box, which led to the penalty being awarded City’s way.

City were the better, and more dangerous team for vast swathes of this game and Guardiola earned the away win his ingenuity deserved.

Kevin De Bruyne was the answer to all of City’s questions

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Kevin de Bruyne wore the captain’s armband with class in the Bernabéu and he was the beating heart and pulsating brain of this composed, yet lionhearted victory.

De Bruyne, in what is now becoming a daily affair, put on a show. Guardiola sprung somewhat of a surprise with the midfield juggernaut playing predominantly as a false 9 as Manchester City engineered a comeback after being 1-0 down to the hosts, and the bullish Belgian was at the epicentre of it all. Everything that has already been said about the midfielder supreme rang true as De Bruyne lead a defiant city to the victory gates.

As the big guns in the City dressing room such as the likes of Fernandinho, Agüero and Sterling had been handed the role of spectators by the boss, all eyes were on De Bruyne and boy did he deliver. Although the first half was surprisingly devoid of goals, the midfielder-turned-striker for the night, provided us with typically gorgeous through balls that cut through the lines of the Madrid defence in a flash. As City harried on for a goal, City’s Ginger Genius put in a delightful lob into the box for Jesus to dispatch and put City right into the contest. But he wasn’t done there.

It is no secret that Manchester City have had problems from the spot, and on a night when the team had to be flawless, so was KDB from 12 yards, slotting home the winner and coming up with a half century of goals for the blue side of Manchester.

With their Champions League ban looming large, considering a CAS verdict is yet to decide the final verdict, the City squad know this may well be their last shot at European success until 2023. The defiance he and City’s squad played with on the night proved they want to win the Champions League right now and put the UEFA ban to one side.

A lack of ideas proved to be the death of Madrid

The kings of Madrid lost a third consecutive game at their castle, this time made to run around by the English side on a stage Real claim to be their own. Zinedine Zidane was without their newest Galactico, Eden Hazard, while Gareth Bale started on the bench and there was a severe lack of creativity in the attacking third of the pitch. Make no mistake, Real’s creators in midfield included the dancing feet of Isco, ex-Ballon d’or winner Luka Modrić and the all-action Fede Valverde but with just Karim Benzema upfront, their creative geniuses seemed to have hit a wall, a blue wall.

Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy stuck to their jobs and did not find it as tough as could be to keep Vinicius Jr. and Isco at bay. Without that extra spark Hazard or Bale could provide at the drop of a hat, Zidane’s side were predictable. To add to the misery further forward, Madrid could just muster 3 shots in the first half, their lowest since 2013.

Real’s leading goal scorer for the season and veteran No. 9, Benzema proved to be a complete disappointment as he only had 18 touches in the entire game. A great cross from Ferland Mendy allowed the Frenchman to leap over Laporte and register a shot on target, which was brilliantly read and then kept out by Ederson. Vinicius showed a clean pair of heels to set up Isco for the opener on the hour mark, but that was just about the only decent thing of note that the Brazilian did all night. Far too many times the sense of occasion seems to get the better of the youngster. The prodigious winger has a lot to learn and was replaced the Welsh dragon and now out of favour Gareth Bale, a change that was at least 30 minutes too late.

Aymeric Laporte’s injury woes continue

The Sky Blues boasted of a stellar defensive record in England as they defended their league title last season and have somehow found it difficult to live up to those standards since the start of 2019-20. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Laporte being sidelined due to injury and City’s defensive vulnerability is not a coincidence. Manchester City look a solid structure at the back when the Frenchman dictates the final line of defence.

Other than the obvious point of having his best defender play in a season-defining tie, the highest concern in Guardiola’s mind would have been the continual return to full fitness of Aymeric Laporte. It was only a few days ago when Pep assured fans and the media that the French defender would be fit to play the whole game against Real, after asking to be subbed against West Ham. Just over half an hour in, the influential centre-back’s night was over, replaced by Fernandinho after another apparent setback. After being out for almost five months, Laporte has featured in four games for City, clocking a full ninety in none of them.

Guardiola would have hoped that there would be fewer knock-on effects and that he could call upon his main man at the back with increasing frequency in the final third of the season when things tend to get a bit messy on the calendar.

City look certain for a place in the quarters and you wouldn’t bet against them to break their Champions League curse in Istanbul this time

A stellar performance from City, leading to a famous victory against the Spanish giants, while taking back home two precious away goals, the tie looks done and dusted unless Real Madrid can find more firepower than they showcased at home.

Pep could barely have dreamed of a better scenario and a fit-again Sterling might be the key as Madrid will have to venture forward to mount attacks in pursuit of away goals and City have the players to exploit teams on the break.

As a side note, it’s the first Champions League knockout tie that Zidane has ever lost whilst in charge of Madrid, and his side have it all to do if they’re to go further in this season’s competition.

With the first legs of the Champions League Round of 16 coming to a close, City and Bayern Munich have looked like the teams to be feared in this edition of the elusive competition.

Could Pep Guardiola orchestrate a Champions League triumph after such a poor season and the UEFA ban? There’s only one way of finding out.