On 26th February, Manchester City will face the 13 times European champions in the most high profile tie of the last 16 of the Champions League. When this tie was originally announced, Manchester City were favorites because Real Madrid were struggling, but now, the Los Blancos are seen as slight favorites. We’ll discuss the system and personnel that both coaches could implement in the first leg, as well as some key battles that could define the outcome of this game.
Real Madrid team selection and system
Zinedine Zidane’s admiration for Pep Guardiola is clearly evident in the way that his Madrid play and the French World Cup winner even visited Guardiola in Munich when he was doing his coaching badges. The reason for pointing this out is that, in a lot of UCL games, there is a clear pattern of one team dominating possession while the other side is organized and looks to play on the break. We saw this in the Atletico Madrid vs Liverpool game as well as the Tottenham vs Leipzig match. However, both of these teams prefer to dominate the ball and this is where the team selection for both coaches will be fascinating. Will Zidane use the 4-3-3 with two wingers playing with Karim Benzema or will he use the 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond? In my opinion, Real Madrid will start in the 4-D-2, with Isco, Fede Valverde, Toni Kroos, Casemiro in midfield while Benzema will be in a front two with Gareth Bale. Zidane has used this setup multiple times this season, notably against Barcelona at the Camp Nou and against PSG at home (Both of these sides like to dominate the ball too).
How Real Madrid’s diamond is different
Just like any other system in football, the midfield diamond is used in different ways by different teams. Zidane uses four midfielders (some teams use a forward behind the front two) as he instructs the front five players to interchange positions regularly. Isco, the man who plays at the top of the diamond regularly pops up in wide areas, as well as helping in the buildup by dropping alongside Casemiro. The reason for mentioning this bit is that Manchester City defend in a zonal 4-5-1, So, the constant changing of position can cause a lot of trouble for them. City do not mark anyone and Real’s forwards (Bale and Benzema) are capable of moving to wide areas to create overloads, likewise, Isco and Fede Valverde also make central runs. There is a good chance that at least one Madrid goal will come from their midfielder’s runs to the central positions.
Real Madrid predicted XI – Thibaut Courtois, Dani Carvajal, Raphael Varane, Sergio Ramos, Ferland Mendy, Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Fede Valverde, Isco, Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale
Manchester City’s predicted line up and system
The Premier League champions are certain to start with a 4-3-3 but there are two pertinent questions that Guardiola will have to tackle. First, who will partner Kevin de Bruyne and Rodri in midfield, will it be İlkay Gündoğan or one of the Silvas? If we are to predict the line up by drawing examples from the last three seasons, then the better bet would be on Gündoğan getting the nod at the Santiago Bernabeu. The second and bigger uncertainty will be Raheem Sterling’s fitness. The England winger did not feature in the 2-0 win against West Ham on Wednesday and City are trying to get him ready for Madrid. Bernando Silva may have to start from the left-wing or we may even see a surprise inclusion of Leroy Sane. The German winger, who has missed the entire season so far with an ACL injury, has returned to training and his involvement will depend on how match fit he is.
City started Gabriel Jesus on the left side of their attack against West Ham but they are extremely unlikely to take this risk at the Bernabeu. The reason for discussing Pep Guardiola’s team selection is that he has made a few mistakes in losses (Versus Tottenham and Liverpool) in the last two seasons of the Champions League. Guardiola must not look to complicate things because it has backfired terribly in the past for him at Bayern as well. In defense, the return of Ayermic Laporte will be welcomed by City. He is being eased back after a lengthy injury but Laporte should start with Fernandinho in central defense. City’s defensive issues are no secret to anyone (29 goals conceded in the league) and this season, they allow teams to stay in the game – like the 3-2 aggregate win against Manchester United in Carabao Cup when they could have won by 5 or 6. You can be sure of one thing that Real Madrid will not be as kind to City as some of the Premier League teams.
This is likely to be Man City’s starting XI on 26th February – Ederson, Kyle Walker, Fernandinho, Ayermic Laporte, Benjamin Mendy, Rodri, İlkay Gündoğan, Kevin De Bruyne, Riyadh Mahrez, Raheem Sterling, Sergio Agüero
Significance of the tie to Manchester City
If you didn’t already know, Manchester City were given a two-year ban from all UEFA competitions after they were found guilty of breaching Financial Fair Play rules. Citizens have assembled one of the greatest squads in English football history but without European football, some of their stars might want to leave. The other big factor is that despite all his success at Bayern Munich and City, Pep Guardiola has not won a Champions League title since 2011. The Catalan coach and City are desperate and they have spent hundreds of millions to get their hands on the biggest trophy in club football. Guardiola has assured everyone that he will stay at City, at least until his contract runs out. If City are unsuccessful with the appeal against their ban, then we could see Guardiola leaving Manchester without winning the Champions League.
Having already endured cruel eliminations from Champions League – on away goal against Monaco and Tottenham – it would be an anticlimactic end to an era in football that saw Man City produce some of the most exhilarating football we have seen in decades. Man City need to win this tie more than Real Madrid because at least the Los Blancos are top of La Liga while the Premier League title is gone for City. Let’s be clear that we are not saying that Real Madrid will not give 100%, Instead, Manchester City’s motivation will be higher, especially considering the ban and their league position.
PREDICTION: 2-0 or 2-1 to Real Madrid for the first leg.
Written by Hammad Pervez