The biggest night in Manchester City’s history is less than a week away. Manuel Pellegrini’s side travel to the Bernabeu to face 10-time Champions League winners Real Madrid with the tie finely poised at 0-0 after the first leg.
England’s only remaining representatives at the top table of European football will fancy their chances against the Galacticos after a resolute display at the Etihad on Tuesday night, but the second leg will pose a different challenge for City.
Where will the game be won and lost in the Spanish capital?
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Cristiano Ronaldo’s presence would be enough to invigorate any team, but without him in Manchester, Real looked relatively ordinary. The Portugal captain has an incredible 16 Champions League goals to his name this season – including a hat-trick in the quarter-final to turn the tie against Wolfsburg on its head.
If the two-time Ballon d’Or winner recovers from his hamstring injury in time for the game, Vincent Kompany and co. will have their work cut out. Ronaldo is a proven match winner, but if City focus all their attention on thwarting the former United star, they could be undone by Gareth Bale or Karim Benzema.
City were in control of the first leg for 40 minutes – until David Silva hobbled off. It was a bold move from Pellegrini to introduce Kelechi Ihaenacho and add more potency to a pretty lacklustre attack, but the Blues’ boss surrendered the midfield as a result.
Toni Kroos and Luka Modric were afforded far too much space and dictated the game because of it. If City are to stand any chance at the Bernabeu they have to play three in midfield.
Will Yaya Toure be fit? The shield of Fernando and Fernandinho will offer protection to the back four and allow the Ivorian to push further forward into the number 10 role and link the play with Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne.
If Pellegrini attempts to be adventurous and play two strikers it will be the undoing of City and the end of their Champions League dreams this season.
The visitors have to keep it tight and play on the counter – which is why Jesus Navas will be crucial. Although the Spaniard’s end product has often been maligned, he offers City an out ball and isn’t afraid of tracking back to help out his defence.
City’s Argentinean ace didn’t have the sort of impact on the game that we’ve come to expect in the first leg. For long periods of the game he was conspicuous by his absence and if the Blues are to progress to the final they’re going to need Aguero to be firing on all cylinders.
The former Atletico Madrid man will be relishing the opportunity of getting one over on his former rivals and when he’s at his best, is one of the deadliest strikers in world football. Pepe and Sergio Ramos handled Aguero well at the Etihad, but it appeared he may have been carrying a knock. If City’s talisman is fully fit at the Bernabeu then Real’s back four will be in for a torrid time.
Real’s left-back is one of their greatest attacking threats. Marcelo’s marauding runs down the left wing and link-up play with Bale will mean that City will have to be more reserved on the right flank. Bacary Sagna will more than likely be preferred to Pablo Zabaleta once more for his additional height and pace to try and counteract the attacking prowess of Marcelo.
The Brazilian grew into the game at the Etihad – particularly in the latter stages when City started to tire – and if Pellegrini’s side afford him too much space they will be punished.
In a tie where the headlines are dominated by Ronaldo and Aguero, the game is more than likely to be won and lost in midfield. Kroos – who could well be at City next season – is one of the most accomplished playmakers in the world, while Modric is as gifted on the ball as anyone in Europe.
Casemiro, like compatriots Fernando and Fernandinho, does the hard work that so often goes unnoticed – in particular at Real in a team full of flair and creativity.
In De Bruyne, City have a player at the top of his game and capable of producing moments of magic. His goal against Paris Saint-Germain sealed safe passage to the semi-finals and he will be a constant thorn in Real’s side next week.
A penalty save in Paris and a stunning stop from point blank range to deny Pepe at the Etihad are two of the main reasons why City are in this position now. Joe Hart has more than played his part in his side’s marvellous Champions League run and he’ll need to be on song once more if City are to make it through to Milan next month.
England’s number one has been incredible for the Blues in Europe – his performance against Barcelona at the Nou Camp will live long in the memory and prompted Lionel Messi to call him a ‘phenomenon’. No doubt the City stopper would like a quieter night this time around, but he can always be relied on when called into action.