Only two English sides have gone to the Santiago Bernabeu and beaten Real Madrid in the history of the Champions League. Arsene Wenger was first to take this accolade in 2006 followed by Rafa Benitez three years later. So for Manchester City to go there and secure not just a victory coming from behind but to perform in the manner they did was all the more impressive in a game that could define City’s season and even how they will be remembered in the chronicles of time.
The pressure to win a Champions League title is a weight around the neck of Pep Guardiola that seems to grow as the seasons tick on without Europe’s most prestigious title. It is also something that could also be considered humorous in many ways as it is literally the only stick to beat him with for opposition fans and media alike considering his track record of dominating domestically in league titles and Cup competitions. To his credit he goes out every year and aims for glory on all fronts from the underrated Carabao Cup to the Champions League.
It was for this reason that we were treated to a game that might not have been one for the purest but in terms of where two of the giants of the game were concerned, this was a masterclass in what it takes to be successful in Europe and the small margins between winning and losing. Much like a boxing match both sides began sparring with each other in the early part of the contest, testing each others defences but with a respect that each could deliver a knockout blow at a moments notice. Guardiola delivered the first tactical surprise of the game with Gabriel Jesus occupying the left flank in a very deliberate intention of neutering the attacking prowess of Carvahal and Isco. For Pep knew that without the brilliant Eden Hazard (ruled out with a broken ankle) the Madrid side would be more reliant on Isco and Vinicius Junior to compensate. With Benjamin Mendy more of a marauding fullback the blend of his skills with Jesus were a perfect foil to the left side of the field thus allowing Marhez and Walker a platform to attack down the right. It was the right call for the away side as Zidane’s side struggled to take the game to the visitors.
The middle of the park was where this game mattered most with City ahead in possession but it was the manner in which they controlled much of the game with their overwhelming aggression and how they cleverly added an extra body to occopy the space between the lines. Kevin De Bruyne was the glue holding this together as he occupied the space between the centre halves and the hapless Casimiro who wasn’t sure if he belonged to him or his defenders. City dropped De Bruyne in alongside Rodri and Gundogan when they turned over possession and that created space for Mahrez and Jesus to strike. This was where City looked the most dangerous and both had chances that went begging long before the break.
The contest was still in the balance however when Madrid pounced on a sloppy piece of passing between Otamendi and Rodri which was punished in the harshest manner when Isco was found in space and proved he was the coolest man in the stadium by dispatching his only chance of the game into the net. But this is where the game ultimately changed for City. Instead of threatening to maybe grab an away goal they now had to go get one. This was the banana skin moment everyone was waiting for. The headlines were being written that once again City were finding a demoralising way to go out of the knockout phase due to their defencive issues.
City then showed perhaps why they were still the favourites to win this competition in 5 clear minutes when they went up a gear that their illustrious opponents used to be so familiar with. De Bruyne opened up the defence with a cross that could butter brennans bread. Jesus found the gap after a quick touch to feel up Ramos and suddenly this game was turned on its head. Madrid were in meltdown and suddenly the most experienced heads in all of Europe were elsewhere. The Madrid side were in turmoil and within seconds Carvahal brought down Sterling inside the box for a stonewall penalty which was converted by De Bryune. City were vindicated and Madrid were broken if not exposed for a side that are not what they used to be. Ramos still seething after the goals was caught between a rock and a hard place when Jesus broke in behind the defence. Que the typical Spanish foul followed by a heartbreaking appeal for justice. Only this time VAR is the executioner. Free kick awarded and Ramos sent for an early shower. This is a pivotal moment for a City side who a year ago went out on a VAR decision which was most cruel against Spurs.
For Madrid to recover from this setback would be huge ask when missing their talisman Hazard and considering their once go to guys Bale/Modric are starting to show the mileage in their legs. Zidane has a mountain to climb to go to the Etihad and outscore a side that are trying to prove to the world that they are as good as they think. For Pep this could very well be the year he proves not only that he is the world’s best but also would be a huge vindication that his methods of total football far outweigh the negatives of playing perhaps not the best defenders and keeper but definately the best natural passers of the ball across his back five.