The 2019/20 Champions League Round of 16 will witness a clash of two titans when Manchester City face 13-time winners Real Madrid. The Premier League giants will travel to the Spanish capital in the first leg on Wednesday, with the return game coming a fortnight later at the Etihad Stadium.
Pep’s European woes
City have already surrendered their Premier League title to runaway leaders Liverpool, but are still going strong in all three cup competitions. The Champions League, however, is a monumental ask for the English champions, who, despite featuring in the tournament for eight seasons in a row, have not managed to reach even a single final. Each year, City look strong favourites to claim the coveted European crown but their inexperience, rashness, and fallibility at the back mean that they continue to fall short in achieving their goals.
In their past three seasons under Pep Guardiola, the Citizens have been knocked out on away goals twice: by AS Monaco in a chaotic 5-5 thriller in the 2016/17 season and by Tottenham Hotspur last year in that dazzling return game at the Etihad when Raheem Sterling’s goal in the final minutes was excruciatingly ruled out by the VAR. In their ‘centurion’ season, City were handsomely beaten 5-1 on aggregate by domestic rivals Liverpool.
The fact that Pep has not won the Champions League since his 2010/11 triumph with Barcelona has clouded his incredible domestic achievements with Bayern Munich and now City. However, the fact that he has not tasted an away victory in a Champions League quarter-final or semi-final in eight years feels more than just a blip. It has often come down to Guardiola’s overthinking in these games when he panics and puts out unusual formations, confusing tactics and unfamiliar approaches which lead to his team’s ultimate downfall.
This season, however, with the Premier League a mere formality, Guardiola and his side can focus all their energy and concentration towards Europe’s most prestigious club competition.
The City boss will need his squad to be fit and rearing to go if they are to stand any chance of reaching a third consecutive Champions League quarter-final. Long-term absentee Aymeric Laporte will be back in the starting XI at the Santiago Bernabeu next week but Leroy Sane’s inclusion is doubtful as he is still recovering from a knee injury suffered back in August. The Catalan manager will hope he also has Sergio Aguero and Kevin de Bruyne in top form, both of whom have been scintillating to watch in the Premier League this season.
City have undoubtedly found it difficult to cope with Liverpool’s relentless pursuit of a first Premier League title in thirty years, and find themselves potentially 22 points behind the league leaders. However, Guardiola and his team have created problems of their own this season, following what has been a two-year trophy-spree. The domestic treble-holders have looked like a shadow of the juggernaut they were in the past couple of seasons, with their form highly inconsistent and performances extremely unpredictable.
The reigning English champions have blown away teams 8-0 and 6-1 and also produced some textbook Guardiola football in huge wins at Manchester United and Arsenal, but at the same time, looked absolutely clueless in home games versus Wolves and Crystal Palace. The players have struggled to keep up with their form, with last season’s stars Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling unable to replicate their heroics this time around. Defensively, Guardiola’s men have been all over the place, leaking goals, conceding silly counter-attacks and surrendering leads in the dying minutes of matches.
However, after the winter-break, City’s clean-sheet wins against West Ham and Leicester will give them added confidence going into the game on Wednesday.
Los Blancos were handsomely beaten by Ajax in this round last season, but they will look to get their Champions League mojo back against City this time around.
Despite losing their superstar forward and Champions League expert Cristiano Ronaldo at the start of last season, Zinedine Zidane still has an experienced group of players who have tasted success in the tournament previously. These include the likes of Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric, Gareth Bale, Marcelo, and Dani Carvajal, all of whom have four Champions League medals to their names.
Real Madrid were three points clear off Barcelona at the top of La Liga at the beginning of February, but a draw with Celta Vigo and a narrow defeat at Levante have them trailing their bitter rivals by two points. With 13 matches still to go and an El Clasico looming above their heads, Zidane’s men could still turn the tide. They have already won the Spanish Super Cup after beating Atletico Madrid on penalties in the final and will look to add more silverware to their illustrious trophy cabinet.
Karim Benzema has been prolific in front of goal, with the Frenchman netting 18 goals in all competitions. The 32-year-old will not have Eden Hazard alongside him in attack after the former Chelsea man suffered another injury on the weekend. The Belgian has produced some match-winning performances against City in his Premier League days and will surely be missed.
Another stand-out performer in the Real Madrid ranks is youngster Federico Valverde, who has turned heads not only in Spain but across Europe. Zidane’s other dependable players this season have been Casemiro and Ferland Mendy, who have been the reason for the side's defensive solidity. The Spanish giants have conceded the second-fewest goals (17) in the continent’s top five leagues this campaign, with only Liverpool letting fewer inside their net (15).
The La Liga leaders had a shaky start to their season with defeats against Mallorca and home draws against Real Valladolid, Real Betis and Club Brugge in the Champions League. However, since the turn of the year, they have been relentless in attack and stonewall in defence. Their recent exit from the Copa del Rey at the hands of Real Sociedad will surely bite them, but a potential double could surely make it one of the most memorable seasons in the club’s recent history.
UEFA ban aftermath
Last week, news broke out that Manchester City were slapped with a two-year ban by UEFA which will disallow them from participating in the Champions League for the foreseeable future. The announcement by the European governing body shocked everyone as they accused City of “overstating their sponsorship revenue and failing to co-operate with the subsequent investigation”. City chiefs will now take UEFA to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in the latest instalment of their long-running battle.
Many claimed that the ban will have a negative effect on the team, who could now be extremely demoralised going into the game on Wednesday. However, the wins against West Ham and Leicester were full of grit, character and some brilliant football.
The club’s Champions League follies will already be in the back of the players' minds and a potential ban could sink the mentality of the team against Real Madrid. However, Guardiola has made sure that his players have their heads held high throughout the remaining season. In a private meeting after the announcement of the ban, the manager lifted his players by reminding them of their talents and achievements in the past couple of years. He even went so far to say that he would still manage at City even if they are demoted to League Two, such is his loyalty and passion for the club.
As for City fans, they will surely not sit back in the games at the Bernabeu and the Etihad and will once again jeer at the Champions League anthem, something they have been doing for years. Anti-UEFA banners could also be in sight as the supporters will voice their dissent and disagreement with the mammoth decision. Guardiola will hope his team is up for the task and with the fans behind them, they will want to prove a point.
Zidane recently heaped praise on City, stating that his opponents will go into the encounter with ‘extra motivation’.
“It's a team anyway, who will be a difficult opponent, knowing also how they have been doing in the Premier League. So they will have extra motivation. It's a rival who are going to be very, very difficult, it's a very big team.”
An instant classic
The two sides have met in the Champions League only four times in their history, with City yet to come out as winners against the Spanish opposition.
Both sets of fans will remember the topsy-turvy group stage match at the Bernabeu in the 2012/13 season when City took the lead twice through goals from Edin Dzeko and Aleksander Kolarov but a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Real Madrid made a stunning 3-2 comeback in the dying minutes of the game. Most recently, the duo clashed in the 2015/16 Champions League semi-finals where Manuel Pellegrini’s Manchester City lost to Real 1-0 on aggregate in a tightly-contested tie.
Manchester City have all the capacity to teach Real Madrid a lesson given their extremely talented and seasoned group of players. They are the top-scorers in Europe’s top five leagues with 105 goals in all competitions and when Guardiola’s football clicks, nobody usually stands a chance against them. Zidane and Real Madrid will be wary of that and given their uncharacteristically-sound defence this season, they might be able to stop the City machine and even inflict dents of their own.
There is little doubt that both encounters will be extremely end-to-end and full of goals, and given the talent on-show, Real Madrid versus Manchester City could turn out to be an instant Champions League classic.