They could not get past the first knockout round of the UEFA Champions League in the 2013/14 and 2014/15 seasons. Yes, they came up against the mighty Barcelona, but would have been disappointed with how meekly they played against the current European champions. This time around, though, they have got to the third knockout round of the Champions League and with considerable ease too. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we are indeed talking about Manchester City’s European journey which will continue on Tuesday, when they play Real Madrid in the first leg of their semi-final tie at the Etihad Stadium.
Many people have been of the opinion that City have got the best possible draw in the form of the 2013/14 Champions League winners, avoiding Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich. But Real’s form has soared in recent weeks and the Los Blancos have won five of their last six games in all competitions. City’s form too has picked up since they lost the Manchester derby a month ago, but come Tuesday, it will surely be a case of whether they can rise up to the ‘Real’ test.
Tactically, the La Liga giants will look to exploit City with ‘three’ elements that they have in their armoury. Which are they and can City combat them?
You can expect this element to be crucial on Tuesday night, and Real have got it in abundance. On the two flanks, they have flying wingers who are well capable of making something out of nothing. Cristiano Ronaldo, who suffered a thigh injury last week, will travel with the squad to Manchester, and knowing the Portuguese, you can expect him to want to play and beat the club that was once his derby rivals while he played for Manchester United. On the opposite flank, Gareth Bale will look to prove that he is an improved player than he was a couple of years ago. He was the man-to-the-rescue for Real on Saturday, as the Welshman’s brace helped his side beat Rayo Vallecano and remain in the La Liga title race.
Ronaldo and Bale are not only suited to a counter-attacking game, but the duo can also utilise their fleet-footedness in 1v1 situations that Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy, who are expected to start in the full-back positions for City, need to be wary of. This Real duo prefer cutting in on their favoured right and left foot, respectively, but do not mind going on the outside and delivering a cross either. They are lethal when it comes to striking the ball and the City players, regardless of who marks this duo, cannot afford to give them space or time on the ball.
Talking of pace, it will not only be this duo which could pose genuine problems for City, but Real’s full-backs – Daniel Carvajal and Marcelo – are quite attack-minded and pacey too. Real, therefore, will have opportunities to create overloads in the flanks with Carvajal and Marcelo’s overlapping runs.
Pace is the element, more than anything else, that could cause City problems against Real. This season, they have played well, and with maturity, in the Champions League. But in the Barclays Premier League, City have been vulnerable against teams with dynamic dribblers – Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, Riyad Mahrez, Eric Lamela and Marko Arnautovic – who have given them nightmares. The question is, can City stymie Real like they managed to against Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), who also had really quick players like Lucas Moura and Angel di Maria in their ranks? The Parisians missed a lot of their key players in the middle of the park, but City pressed them really well and cut down the passing lanes. PSG weren’t allowed to play their game and, on Tuesday night, City will have to do something similar.
Physicality and power
Real have the physically stronger players and could have an advantage at set-pieces. City are usually good at defending corners and free-kicks, but it will be put to the test by Real. In the Spanish La Liga this season, Real have scored the most headed goals (21) and the next best record in the league is 16, by Atheltic Bilbao. The likes of Ronaldo, Karim Benzema if he plays, Pepe, Sergio Ramos (cannot forget him!), to name a few are lethal in the air and will take some stopping by City.
Not only at set-pieces, but Real will try to leverage their strength to win 50-50 challenges and balls in the air, basically. They will also try to disrupt City’s rhythm by making tactical fouls, which the likes of Ramos and Pepe thrive on. Physicality will be a crucial aspect in Tuesday’s game and one that Real will look to make the most of with the powerful individuals they have.
This is not as critical a factor as the first two, but one that could have a huge bearing on the game. The reason I say that is because of the vision and passing ability of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos. As aforementioned, City must stymie Real in the middle of the park and alleviate the passing options the Modric-Kroos duo in particular will have, with the runs made by the ‘BBC’. But City have to be clever and not be magnanimous by providing Modric and Kroos time on the ball. Kroos has a pass accuracy of 94%, which is three more than Modric’s (91%) in the La Liga, an indication of how deadly they can be in finding their targets.
Manuel Pellegrini’s men did the containing job so well against PSG in both the legs and have to replicate that performance against the Los Blancos.
City will have drawn plenty of confidence from their performances against PSG, who, as I said, were not allowed to play their own game. Laurent Blanc’s side were bereft of their key players but still, City were resolute and tactically efficient.
Comparing that performance to the task of stopping Real, there aren’t a lot of differences, at least not huge ones. But the aforementioned trio of elements are fundamental, only, yet could be used to great effect by Zidane’s side. And likewise, although fundamental, City cannot afford to let Real exploit them using their strengths.