Manchester City enter previously unchartered territory as they host the first leg of their maiden Champions League semi-final, coming up against what is in contrast the competition’s most successful ever side in Real Madrid.
With holders Barcelona having been eliminated in the last round, the Champions League appears to have a bit more of an open feel to it as it reaches the last-four stage, and it is difficult to pick a clear favourite in this tie. Despite their star-studded squad, Real Madrid have some well-documented vulnerabilities that are capable of being exploited, while City will need to maintain the level of intensity and discipline they have shown in order to get this far.
Man City now have the confidence to take on any side in Europe after they overcame the odds to defeat French champions Paris St. Germain with the help of an excellent performance in the home leg as star man Kevin de Bruyne fired in the winner to reward their superiority on the night. Many felt it inconceivable that City would manage to keep a clean sheet against such a dangerous attacking unit, but the manner in which they snuffed them out indicated a large degree of maturity as Eliaquim Mangala in particular thrived at centre-back.
They will need to step up another level here, even if key Real Madrid duo Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema are not involved. Although boss Zinedine Zidane claims that it is unlikely, the sight of Ronaldo being absent from the teamsheet will serve as a huge boost for City should that indeed be the case, with the three-time Ballon D’Or winner a doubt after picking up a muscle injury in a recent game against Villarreal. Meanwhile, Benzema was forced off in the first half of Saturday’s comeback victory over Rayo Vallecano.
Currently third in La Liga and just a point behind leading duo Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, the 10-time European champions needed Ronaldo to get them out of a sizeable hole in the quarter-finals as they entered the second leg of their tie with Wolfsburg with it all to do at 2-0 down. Almost single-handedly he managed to turn it round and spare their blushes, but it was an affair that highlighted the fact that they can be outdone should their defence not be given the protection it needs.
A lot of responsibility is placed on the shoulders of Casemiro, who is the only midfielder of a defensive mindset among the Real Madrid squad, so coming into this one City may be thinking that if they can take him out of the game, they will have a very real chance of hurting the club from the Bernabeu. It must be said however that regardless of the way things pan out tactically, Man City must win this first leg to have a serious chance of reaching the final.
Things went swimmingly for City at the weekend as Manuel Pellegrini took the calculated risk of resting some of his key players for the game against Stoke City but eventually ran out convincing 4-0 winners. Aside from a knock for Yaya Toure – who was unlikely to start in any case – there were no serious injuries to contend with, and youngster Kelechi Iheanacho made his case to be involved here by scoring a brace to add to his already impressive goals tally.
It is very tough to pick a winner in this tie at the outset, but what looks certain is that it will be decided by instances of individual brilliance. City will be pinning their hopes on de Bruyne and Sergio Aguero, while Real are hoping to put their defensive concerns to one side as their group of attacking maestros converge on Manchester. It promises to be a classic.