Manchester City are holders, but Real Madrid’s kings must still be dethroned

Estimated read time 5 min read

Blowing away Real Madrid in a Champions League semi-final second leg before their home crowd was the fantasy Manchester City made reality last spring. The challenge for the holders is to knock the Madridistas out again at the Etihad Stadium, and after the scintillating performance of a year ago there is no sense of inferiority.

By the close of a seismic night at a jubilant Etihad Stadium Pep Guardiola’s team were 4-0 victors, 5-1 on aggregate, a step closer to the treble, and Carlo Ancelotti’s continental aristocrats were heading back to the Spanish capital shellshocked.

This was some display against the record 14-time winners, who were billed by Bernardo Silva as the “kings of the competition” on the eve of the quarter-final second leg, the tie poised at 3-3 after last week’s blockbuster encounter. That was a contest of transitions, anathema to Guardiola’s wish for total control. Yet while he and Silva are aware of Madrid’s potency, the Portuguese points to the significance of the performance 11 months ago, in which he scored twice in the first 37 minutes.

Particularly as this followed Ancelotti’s men overturning what was a 5-3 aggregate deficit the previous year in the 90th minute of the semi-final second leg at the Bernabéu, Karim Benzema’s extra-time penalty knocking out City 6-5. Madrid’s Federico Valverde, whose late volley achieved parity eight days ago, characterises the Etihad as his most difficult stadium to play at, owing to the fans and City’s mode of play.

Silva understands why. “We have that feeling and still have the feeling that we are very strong with our people,” he says. “After what happened the season before when we were knocked out by Real we wanted to put things right and that performance was also a bit of an apology to our fans for what happened because we feel we owed them another chance to win the competition.

“Now it is a different game, different teams, we have our signings and players that have left. Let’s see but we are very confident because we play at home against the kings of the competition.”

Those referenced by Silva as incoming since for City are Jérémy Doku, Josko Gvardiol, Mateo Kovacic and Matheus Nunes, while two mainstays of the treble victors who departed are Ilkay Gündogan, the captain, and Riyad Mahrez. Madrid’s big addition last summer was Jude Bellingham, who though muted in the first leg, is their player of the season, the fulcrum of Ancelotti’s team, who has contributed 20 goals and 10 assists, often as a No 10.

Guardiola wants the 20-year‑old shut down again: “At his age, he handles the pressure without a problem. He has a good mentality and is an exceptional player. We have to control him and take a look at what he does. Playing at a top club like Madrid or Barcelona, it is not easy to settle quick; he has settled quicker. From the beginning his impact was huge in terms of goals and presence and many things.”

As a former Barça captain and coach, Guardiola has a storied history with Madrid. “It always has been and always will be big,” he says. “Real Madrid in this competition is always a big game. It’s special for me, as a player and manager. But this doesn’t count. What counts is what we have to do to win tomorrow.”

The pace of Vinícius Júnior through the middle and Rodrygo out wide plus Toni Kroos’s midfield guile complement Bellingham’s game-breaking threat, and though Guardiola understands how difficult it is to stifle Madrid throughout, he suggests City will try.

“We have to adjust some things that we didn’t do well in the Bernabéu,” he says. “The result was really good, more than fine, but we have to perform a little bit better. We have the last training on Tuesday and we will talk about that and go for it.”

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Bernardo Silva celebrates after scoring Manchester City’s second goal in last year’s semi-final thrashing of Real Madrid.View image in fullscreen

Routing Real last year was huge psychologically but Guardiola wants no easing off. He says: “We need to feel the pressure that you don’t want to lose the game. If you think we have done it already, we will not have this piece of hunger to compete against these teams. It’s true that the fact we won it has made us feel better and more comfortable but we need the right energy.

“Our people at home will help us a lot. We have sold out. We need a lot of noise and presence from them, especially in bad moments, because, as I said before the game in Madrid, in a game of over 90 minutes there are moments you are better and moments you have to suffer.”

City struggled earlier in the season but Saturday’s 5-1 rout of Luton indicates they are hitting optimum form precisely when required. Silva offers an explanation for the unevenness of late autumn and early winter.

“A mix of different things,” he says. “A team that won a treble comes back on a bit of a hangover. “Gündogan, Mahrez left and it was not easy to adapt, Rodri was suspended [for three games] – a big player for us – and Kevin De Bruyne had a long injury.

“Since [6] December we haven’t lost a game so we are happy to get to this part of the season to still fight for the three most important competitions.”


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