Can Manchester City use troubles as motivation against Real Madrid?
Background image: I, Elemaki, CC BY-SA 2.5
Manchester City have responded rather well on the pitch to their troubles off it. The soon-to-be-dethroned Premier League champions have won the two games since their Champions League ban without conceding a goal. A watertight defence has been a rare occurrence this season, effectively giving Liverpool a free ride to the title. But the biggest test of the term will be faced tonight. And it doesn't come bigger than facing Real Madrid in the Champions League...
The Cityzens haven't been able to get the better of the Spanish giants in all their previous meetings. Los Blancos eliminated the English side in the semi-final on the way to lifting the trophy in 2016. That was under former manager Manuel Pellegrini. Pep Guardiola hasn't made it past the last eight since; despite dominating English football over the last few years.
But like star striker Sergio Aguero has stated, the team has been garnering experience in that time. The fact that Madrid are still struggling to rediscover their best form since Cristiano Ronaldo checked out could work in City's favour. The 13-time European champions were dumped out of the competition in embarrassing fashion last term. Losing 4-1 to Ajax at the Santiago Bernabeu was surprising, to say the least.
It led directly to the return of Zinedine Zidane to the Madrid dugout. Although the team's performance has improved significantly since then, periods of inconsistency have lingered. Los Blancos failed to secure a win against Paris Saint-Germain in the group stage, drawing against the French champions at home after losing the away fixture 3-0. Another home draw against Club Brugge meant the side finished in second place in the group.
The punishment for finishing as runner-up was to face the first-place team in Group C. Yet, Madrid's experience in the competition makes them favorites to progress to the next round over two legs. A look at how City capitulated in the knockout stages of the competition in the last three years shows that Madrid have a clear edge. Losing to Monaco, Liverpool and Tottenham respectively doesn't inspire confidence that things will be any different this time around.
The football industry doesn't like Manchester City.
It's as if they think that 'little ole Citeh' should stay 'little ole Citeh' forever, never better themselves & that any City ambition should of died at Maine Rd.
There's no quarantine for jealousy! https://t.co/U3FeJHgK3P
But there's no better time to face the Spanish side. Madrid has failed to win three of its last four games in all competitions, losing two of those. Karim Benzema, the main source for goals, has scored just twice in the last 11 outings. Eden Hazard is out injured. The Belgian will still be sidelined when the reverse fixture comes around. Gareth Bale is not quite the player he was seasons ago. The team is struggling on both sides of the pitch, which resulted in being knocked off the top of La Liga by Barcelona last weekend.
Yet, Manchester City doesn't require an invitation to score goals when the opposition's defence is not holding up. Unlike Luka Jovic, who has failed to fill in for Benzema when needed, Gabriel Jesus usually comes in to make a difference. The Brazilian replaced his senior teammate and went on to score to secure all three points against Leicester last weekend. Riyad Mahrez is in top form at the moment, prompting Samuel Eto'o to tip him for the Ballon d'Or in the near future. Player for player, the City front line is superior right now.
In midfield, Kevin De Bruyne and Rodrigo can also match Madrid's serial winners like Toni Kroos and Luka Modric. At the back, Aymeric Laporte's return significantly improves the situation. So it will be down to other factors like mentality and the manager's tactics on the day. Zidane has won the competition three times back-to-back, but Guardiola is a mastermind who can go toe-to-toe with the best.
As for the team's mental fortitude, there is a sense of injustice among the Cityzens. Handed a two-season Champions League ban that the club faithful believe is a witch-hunt, the players will most likely approach the game as a way of getting back at UEFA. Like wounded lions, they'll now feel they're left with no other option than to win the competition to spite the regulatory body.
Comments from the manager and most of the players ahead of the encounter indicate they see this as a do-or-die affair. That determination could be their biggest strength in the end. Just that if there's any team that has seen it all in the competition and still triumphed in the end, it's Real Madrid. But will they do it again against Manchester City? We'll find out soon enough...