It’s Madrid again in the Champions League, with a single goal advantage going into the second leg. Against Atletico at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium, there was the feeling we’d done the hard part by getting ahead at the Etihad. It turned out the hard part was yet to come.
They’ll be less naivety this time, with the recognition that Real can score against us coupled with their habit of bending a game to their advantage at the Bernabeu. From the moment the draw was made, it felt harder than our previous encounter in 2020 simply due to the second leg being away.
Looking simply at the score from the first leg, it appears perfectly balanced with City having a single goal advantage, while the absence of the away goals rule is good news for City after Real managed three. Then again, without away goals counting more, the chances of extra time and penalties are increased. We love Ederson, but his penalty record isn’t exceptional and numerous City players haven’t exactly been clinical from the spot in recent years. Better to win it in normal time, not least because Real were able to rest more players at the weekend.
After the first leg, it was hoped the return of João Cancelo and Kyle Walker would give City a significant improvement for the second leg. Sadly Walker is looking doubtful, so presumably Cancelo will be tasked with keeping up with Vinícius Júnior. Cancelo is better going forward than defending so this isn’t ideal. He also needs to regain some of his early season freshness after a heavy schedule has left him looking jaded recently. A jaded Cancelo is a careless Cancelo and City can’t afford him giving up possession cheaply.
The bonus for City has been the sudden upturn in form for Gabriel Jesus, to the extent that Pep Guardiola’s overthinking in the first leg saw him come up with the radical idea of playing the former striker… as a striker!
The great thing about this is no one else was asked to play false nine. The pros and cons of the false nine are well documented, but often overlooked is the issue that City don’t have a player particularly well suited to the role. When you think about it, all City’s midfielders are better elsewhere:
Foden – best performances have been on the flanks or as a number 8.
De Bruyne – better as a number 8, putting the ball in for a striker.
Silva – his energy is essential as a number 8 in big games this season.
Mahrez – better on the right flank with space to pick up the ball and cut in.
Gündoğan – last season’s scoring run is over and he’s back to being better in midfield.
Grealish – would be happy to start, but clearly better on the left wing or left sided number 8.
Ferran Torres was the only one who looked like he may be better up front than out wide, but he didn’t get sufficient game time to stick around.
So there’s a good chance it will be Jesus leading the line again and against a defence where there’s space for his movement to cause problems, not to mention his pressing.
After going two up in the first ten minutes, there was a sense that City might win this tie in the first leg but it wasn’t to be. Previous rounds have shown Real’s capacity to turn it round at their place and personally I felt we needed an advantage of three goals or more to be sure of getting through.
We know we have the quality and teamwork to score and win, but a nagging doubt is the mentality in this competition. Pep and the players are desperate to win it, despite what they might say. When we get ahead, nerves have got the better of us in the past.
The post match reporting of the Atletico game was all about the fouling and gamesmanship by Simeone’s side and how City had done well to come through. Completely overlooked was how badly City played in the second half. What was the plan? City stopped trying to play progressive football, and just wanted to control the game by passing the ball around the defence and wait for the final whistle. Against a well organised press, this was asking for trouble and there were more desperate clearances than I can recall from a Pep side.
It was reminiscent of when we went to Monaco with a two goal lead and hoped to knock the ball around for 90 minutes rather than play in the opposing half and probe for goals.
We know control is everything for Pep and as a result there is a natural tendency in these high stakes games when once ahead, to try and just keep the ball, not take risks, not push too far forward in case we get done on the counter.
It could be seen in the first leg, when we went two goals ahead, the emphasis subtly changed from being progressive to not taking risks. That’s when we get boxed in, and while our defending under Pep has improved, we’re still not sufficiently resilient to cope with sustained pressure from a side with the likes of Karim Benzema.
We’ll need to be at least a couple of goals ahead on the night and see Real lose belief before we can turn to the tactic of keep ball in our own half.
As for the team, if Walker is out, then the main debate is about who plays full-back. Madrid pressed us surprisingly well last week, so I’d go for the options best suited to breaking the press – Cancelo and Zinchenko.
If he’s fit, Ake may be better defensively than Zinchenko, but it’s the other flank with Vinícius where the main attacking threat lies. This also feels too big a game for Stones at full-back. He just isn’t as comfortable there, though I’d be ok with him at centre-back. Not at the expense of Dias though. We need the Portuguese to organise everyone else – we just look less like conceding with him on the pitch.
Further upfield, Silva’s energy is essential in the middle – sorry Gündoğan. In attack, the three from last week caused plenty of problems and warrant another chance despite the unconverted chances.
More important will be Pep’s use of subs. His reluctance to make changes is increasingly apparent and it was noticeable how Ancelotti was more proactive in the first leg and Real looked stronger at the end than in any other part of the game.
With five available, and City having had a tougher recent schedule, Pep needs to make best use of those on the bench.
A prediction? Well no one can see it being goalless, so if we get the first couple of goals, then hopefully we’ll have the confidence to keep playing our patient, progressive game and see the game out in comfort. Otherwise it gets harder to predict with the possibility of the lead changing hands as each side fails to remain in control for long.
Ederson (without the uncharacteristic passing errors of last week)
Cancelo, Dias, Laporte, Zinchenko
De Bruyne, Silva
Mahrez, Jesus, Foden
(If Walker is fit, then it’s him and Cancelo at full-back)