It’s showtime. Not just any show though, it is the biggest billing of all billings in the round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League. It is the peak of football romanticism. It doesn’t get more tactical than this. It cannot get more emotional than this. The 13-time Kings of Europe are in search of a lost crown. Their arsenal is running low, they are not doing well in their league with an El Clásico looming large. But this is the Champions League and these are the nights which made Real Madrid who they are. They have not excelled in every single of these magical nights at the Bernabéu but this is where they have suffered, got defeated, shed tears. But this is also the place where they have learned how a game of football can gain in size to be as big as life itself. Manchester City, on the other hand, are out of the league race and bracing for battles in courtrooms but for now, this tie is all they have.
Pep Guardiola is again facing the biggest rival of his football career as player and manager. He is expected to unleash tactical hell on Real Madrid with an offensive core that is unmatched in Europe in the present day. Zidane himself calls Pep the best manager in the world. Manchester City’s leaking defense can become insignificant if their attack-band is in tune. There are more ifs and buts for Real Madrid than clear and concise battle-cries, leading to this game. But for the sole reason of Champions League being the name of the occasion, Madrid are expected to fight for the entirety of the long 90 minutes at the Bernabéu and at Etihad.
Stakes, as high as they could be
There was a time Real Madrid would make impractical comebacks, finish games in the first half and dominate over long stretches of the season. But those days are long gone. There is a sense of desperation to climb back to their elite status which has been severely dented since the summer of 2018. Zidane’s Madrid started the season in that desperation in 2019 and then they were in touching distance of the safe place they were chasing. Three terrible displays against Sociedad, Celta, and Levante have taken a huge chunk of life out their season. Add another two-month long absence of Eden Hazard on top of that when Pep’s City and Messi’s Barca are glaring at the wounded lion.
The situation is far from ideal at the Bernabéu. Zidane’s solid defense has suddenly started to get vaporized by vertical balls. The attack is as inefficient as it can get. Real Madrid offensive efficiency is one of the worst among the top teams in Europe, maybe even worse than some of the mid-tier teams. Their top-scorer has scored four goals in his last 16 games and their 2nd highest scorer is playing for Castilla right now. The midfield got rejuvenated briefly but they have gone back to merely distributing the ball to full-backs which leads to crosses that find no man in a Real Madrid shirt in the penalty area.
If Real Madrid do not find a way to get out of this tactical mess within four days where they also have to host Leo Messi’s table topper Barcelona, the season could well get finished as early as by the end of March. There is no catching of Barca if they get a hefty lead in the league and there is no stopping of Manchester City once they get in their fierce offensive groove. This is not just any crunch week in the season for Zidane and his men. This is ‘the’ week. It’s now or never.
Zidane has left out James and Rodrygo among the players who would have been eager to be part of this game. There are no other major surprises in Zidane’s 19-man squad. Bale and Jović have recovered in time to be in the squad. Here’s the full list.
Alphonse Areola, Thibaut Courtois, Diego Altube, Dani Carvajal, Éder Militão, Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane, Marcelo, Ferland Mendy, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Casemiro, Fede Valverde, Isco, Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Lucas Vázquez, Luka Jović, Vinicius Jr.
Guardiola is traveling with a 22-man squad. Rahim Sterling is a part of the squad but the extent of his participation is still a mystery. Sane has failed to recover in time to travel to Madrid.
Ederson, Bravo, Carson , Walker, Cancelo, Fernandinho, Otamendi, Stones, Garcia, Mendy, Zinchenko, Laporte , Gundogan, Rodri, Silva, Bernardo, Foden, De Bruyne, Mahrez, Sterling, Jesus, Aguero.
What to Expect
It’s Guardiola vs Zinedine Zidane. Do you need more words to expect a tactical bonanza of the highest order that will spin your head?
Before getting his coaching license, Zidane visited Bayern’s training facilities to learn some traits of top-level management from Pep. Destiny now locks Pep, one of the greatest managers of all-time against Zidane, who is not just a top manager but also one of the most significant football personnel of all time. This game and this tie will be won and lost within the finest of the details.
Zidane’s most balanced line up with optimal tactical choices would have to feature Isco as a number 10 in a 4-4-2 diamond where Bale will be partnering up with Benzema upfront. Madrid will suffer for possession against the most possession-oriented manager of the world. But their full-backs must defend with their lives to tackle City’s press, counter-press and an additional layer of press for the loose balls. There is no alternative to tame this well-oiled machine charged by the presence of Kevin De Bruyne, arguably the best central midfielder in the world right now. Manchester City will obviously be boosted by the return of Laporte as well.
To properly exploit City’s fragile nature in defense due to their high line, Madrid could use the 4-3-3 formation as well which will allow Vinicius to play a key role in the game. But unless they rectify their terrible scoring efficiency, none of this would matter.
Real Madrid: L D W L W
Manchester City: W W L L W
Head to Head
Last 4 official matches
Real Madrid: 2
Man City: 0
Real Madrid: Courtois; Carvajal, Varane, Ramos, Mendy; Casemiro, Kroos, Valverde, Isco; Benzema, Bale.
Manchester City: Ederson; Walker, Otamendi, Laporte, Mendy; Rodri, David Silva, De Bruyne; Bernardo Silva, Aguero, Mahrez.
Players to Watch
Toni Kroos, Real Madrid
Guardiola’s former student at Bayern Munich, Toni Kroos is going to be a vital man in the middle for Los Blancos.
Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester City
The Belgian wizard will want to test and beat his national teammate- Courtois at every chance he gets.
Daniele Orsato, Italy.
21:00 CET, Estadio Santiago Bernabéu.
“We want to make the fans proud. As ever, we’re going to give it absolutely everything we’ve got. We know the Champions League is back, we know how important and beautiful this fixture is and we’ll give it our all for them. For the players and for the fans who are going to come and watch their players.” – Zinedine Zidane.
“It’s always a pleasure to be back at this stadium, it’s one of the greatest in the game. It’s an honour to be playing in the Champions League at the Bernabéu and you simply have to enjoy it. We know the challenge that lies ahead of us. We’ve prepared for it and we just have to go out and be ourselves and put in a good performance. There’s no added motivation. You’ve got to have that desire to win. It’s just another game.” – Pep Guardiola.