The Champions League returns this Friday as the World Cup-style one-leg knockout stages guarantees to add extra spice to proceedings later in the tournament.
Manchester City will be belated hosts to the thirteen-time champions Real Madrid, following the Citizens exceptional 2-1 win at the Santiago Bernabéu back in February.
Both sides have been in impressive form since football’s return. City have won eight of their 10 league matches since the restart, while Zidane’s men are undefeated in eleven, winning ten and drawing once on the final day, to clinch the La Liga title.
Even with two away goals for City, this tie is still very much in the balance as both sides are without key players and the added rest following each league’s conclusion points towards an incredibly tense and tactically inventive affair.
Here are the five things to look out for during Friday’s Champions League clash.
Winning without Messi or Ronaldo
Pep Guardiola and Zinedine Zidane are set upon proving their doubters wrong and winning Europe’s greatest prize without the two best players in the past twenty years.
The Champions League has eluded Guardiola since 2011 and with multiple failures in the latter knockout stages, the Catalan’s recent record in the Champions League has come into some criticism.
The usual drudge of clickbait criticisms re-emerges at this time of the tournament, questioning whether Pep can mastermind a victory without the help of Lionel Messi. Yet, like in previous seasons, the odds and the media still reflect in favour of Guardiola’s City finally succeeding in Europe.
In the opposing dugout is a manager with an immense pedigree in Europe of late, winning a historic three-peat in his first tenure with the Spanish club. However, since Zidane’s return to the Los Blancos, he is now beginning to face a similar criticism to Guardiola.
Can the Frenchman succeed in Europe without one of the greatest goal scorers of a generation? After an impressive run of form since the restart, Zidane’s side look in extremely better shape than they did back in February.
Players such as Karim Benzema are performing above and beyond their usual output in recent seasons. Zidane has once again proved his credentials as an elite manager with astute tactical acumen.
That said, given the sensationalism of football media, if this tie is to get away from Madrid, the shadow of Ronaldo will surely linger in the media aftermath.
The midfield set up for both sides will be very telling to the nature of the game as Guardiola’s men will hope to maintain possession and keep the ball falling to feet of either Toni Kroos or Luka Modric.
As seen in the first leg, a double pivot may be deployed with Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan and Kevin de Bruyne just ahead of them.
In one sense, City do not need to attack Real and can allow the Spanish side to press up high, in an effort to bounce on the counter-attack with their frightening pace – as seen quintessentially in the 46th minute in the first-leg where De Bruyne left Modric in his wake, leading to a Mahrez shot on goal.
For Real Madrid, Zidane’s men need to score at least twice to progress into the next round. But can they be as open as they were in the first leg, especially in defensive transition?
The answer is surely not. Since the restart, however, Madrid have been astounding at the back – leading to Thibaut Courtious – who came into some heavy criticism at the start of this season – winning the La Liga Golden Glove over Jan Oblak.
Kroos and Modric cannot play together when that type of pace City possess is there to tear through their press.
Zidane may go to match Guardiola and have a double pivot with Federico Valverde and Casimero to provide cover for Militao and establish a level of insurance if playing deeper – trusting their front four between Benzema, Hazard, Vinicus Jr, Rodrygo, Isco, Asensio & ex-City player Brahim Diaz to wreak havoc on the counter.
Sergio Ramos’ suspension for the second-leg is monumental to say the least. While it may seem the Madrid players should be used to playing without Ramos giving his tendency to be carded, the lack of his leadership and maverick movement in build-up play will be sorely missed. Of the last six games where Ramos has not featured, the Spanish side have won only once.
Another significant miss for this fixture is Sergio Aguero. With a lot of hearsay that the Argentine striker may recover from his meniscus injury, Guardiola did confirm recently he will not feature at all.
While the Citizens have coped relatively well without their number one forward, City fans will know that for a game of such magnitude as this, Aguero’s clinical edge would have calmed a few nerves.
As good as Sterling, Jesus and Mahrez were in the first-leg, they missed an abundance of chances. With this fixture slightly in favour of City with their two away goals, Guardiola’s side will look to end this tie as quickly as possible.
And the finishing of the forwards will need to be on point if so. Otherwise, the longer the games goes on and big chances are missed, City’s resolve will be tested to the full.
To Be Won Out Wide
Midfield battles usually dictate the outcome of any given game. However, this tie will predominantly lie at the feet of the wingers.
We saw in the previous leg that all three goals occurred from successful wide play.
From Vinicius Jr latching onto a defensive mix up between Otamendi and Rodri and playing it across the box for Isco to finish, or Kevin De Bruyne cross on the turn for Jesus’ opener & of course Sterling’s bustling pace to force Carvajal into a late tackle in the box.
Those elements remain for this fixture. Sterling and Jesus could well alternate duties on the left flank in an attempt to drag Carvajal inside and leave space for Cancelo on the overlap.
Nevertheless, targeting both Madrid full-backs, Carvajal and Ferland Mendy, will be critical in City accruing vital chances in front of goal.
Kevin De Bruyne will have the freedom to roam as he did in the previous fixture, but what remains imperative is Mahrez, Sterling or Jesus hug the touchline and spread the Madrid backline.
That way, the half-spaces will appear and De Bruyne can make his darting underlaps or supply his early time crosses from the edge of the box to test the newly matched Madrid centre backs.
On the other end, we could see the introduction of Eden Hazard, who did not feature in the first-leg. While having a stuttering season due to injury, the Belgian has never reached the levels he reached for Chelsea.
However, Manchester City are a side Hazard knows well and Kyle Walker a familiar opponent he has clashed with. It would not be surprising to see Hazard have an incredibly impactful performance on Friday.
Simply down to his extraordinary dribbling ability combined with his acceleration, he could cause mayhem for City’s already shaky defence.
Both sides could either deploy a conservative approach or go for the throat. Madrid need two goals while City could aim to end the tie in the first half.
In both instances, the wide areas will be crucial in gaining the advantage. Stacking the central areas of the pitch, targeting both side’s full-backs or working in underlaps to build-up play will be seen as key movements against a compact low block or on the counter-attack.
Can Typical City Sit in the Stands for This One?
Due to the pandemic, the Champions League is now structured like an international tournament and with that comes benefits and issues.
For Guardiola’s City, their season has been one of brilliance tarnished by individual errors.
Since the restart, for example, every two excellent performances are marred by one poor one and round the wheel turns.
With single-leg ties, City have the capacity to experience another abject performance with no chance to remedy the tie in the second leg or have done enough in the first leg to hang on.
City very well could put in a performance like we saw against Liverpool or Watford and blow their opponents off the park, or we could see a performance akin to the Arsenal semi-final and have no chance to recover and respond.
Even with the wealth of City, from afar it’s good to know the heart of Typical City still remains…until you get to the Champions League knock out stages.
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