Manchester City – Real Madrid: Madrilenian Miracle Resists Mancunian Mastery (4-3)

Battling the odds to reach the semi-final, Real Madrid required more than luck to compete with what might be the best outfit in Europe. The ninety minutes of action produced an epic evening where one outfit will rue their profligacy, and the other owe a debt to their talismanic forward.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

Media discourse did its utmost to contrast Pep Guardiola and Diego Simeone in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, but this tie offered an even starker antithesis. If Pep had been the winner of a stylistic war of good and evil in the last eight, this contest would be a battle of managerial methods.

Pep’s painstaking processes keep on bearing fruit. Pedantic planning has taken Manchester City to the peak of the English game, where a fourth Premier League title in the last five years is now theirs to lose. Yet, to fulfill his time at the club in the eyes of all observers, he requires a Champions League trophy. It is here many of his detractors have sought to critique his approach. Guilty of ‘overthinking’ ideas in the dugout, maybe he could take a piece of inspiration from his illustrious opposite number?

Where Pep is obsessive, Carlo Ancelotti exudes a much more blasé aura. In a game where the ultimate autonomy lies with players to make choices on the pitch, planning can only work to a certain extent. Deference to the will and way of the players is not a surefire plan from week to week, but few posts are more suitable for this strategy than his current one at Real Madrid. Back into the final four of the Champions League for the second year in a row, Ancelotti’s old guard is making a heroic last stand.

Guardiola brought Bernardo Silva, Riyad Mahrez, and Phil Foden into the fold off the back of a 5-1 win over Watford, where Gabriel Jesus, who bagged four goals on the day, also featured in the lineup. But if he would have tinkered anywhere, it would be in the back four. João Cancelo and Kyle Walker were missing from the squad, but in the end, John Stones, a doubt before kickoff, was fit for selection.

Ancelotti had rotated his outfit ahead of this fixture as well. He changed five names from the lineup he picked for the trip to Osasuna. Dani Carvajal and Ferland Mendy took the pair of fullback slots, while Vinícius Júnior flanked Karim Benzema. The main absentee was Casemiro, on the bench with a muscular injury. Thus, Toni Kroos sat at the base of midfield while Luka Modrić played on his left.

City offer no surprises

Flying out of the traps, Manchester City had asserted their superiority within 100 seconds of kickoff. Riyad Mahrez skipped free from three markers and drove into the right halfspace, where he found a piercing run from Kevin de Bruyne, whose stooping header eluded the diving Thibaut Courtois.

Far from the unusual, City unveiled an offensive layout they have used many times. From a 2-3-5 structure, both fullbacks often moved inward to the halfspaces. Stones stayed deeper as a safeguard to manage the threat of Vinícius Júnior on the break, while Bernardo supported Mahrez from the right flank in the final third. On the other hand, Zinchenko operated from the left much more like a central midfielder, slipping between the lines to generate overloads and combine with de Bruyne or Foden.

Popping up in zones he typically fills for Ukraine, Zinchenko’s display was noteworthy on the night. Starting from flatter or deeper positions, he picked the right moment to rotate into free rooms in front of the back four. From here, he either played one-two combinations with other attackers or forced Madrid’s midfield to adjust their positions. It was a task that troubled the away team time and again.

11th minute: buildup to Manchester City’s second goal. Zinchenko, tucked into the left halfspace, moves higher while Rodri drops laterally in front of Valverde, delaying his press and pinning Kroos. Simultaneously, de Bruyne rotates to the outside shoulder of the Uruguayan. Once Aymeric Laporte receives the ball back from Rodri, Carvajal’s attention splits between de Bruyne and Foden, whose run into depth prompts Eder Militão to shift outward to the sideline, opening the center of the block.

Neither do Real Madrid

Madrid’s chaotic defending collapsed in the face of a crisp, clean attack: the goalmouth action was indicative of this flaw. In the 2nd minute, Rodrygo dropped near de Bruyne before Mahrez’s cross, but no one picked up the Belgian’s run. Similarly, with the only danger at the far post from a de Bruyne cross, Kroos did not drop into the last line, forcing Alaba to step out perilously. Jesus took the chance to exploit this calamity, breaking away from his man to double the lead inside a quarter of an hour.

The opportunities kept arriving for City’s forwards. Mahrez passed up on a chance to square the ball to Foden for a tap-in, rattling the side of the net. His teammate soon spurned another presentable shot courtesy of de Bruyne, slotting wide of the target. An irate Pep was fully aware the away team could peg back the two goal advantage to alter the outlook of the contest. So it proved in the 33rd minute.

Modrić won a duel with Mahrez to force the play into the path of Mendy. His delivery from the left bent away from its recipient, but nothing could stop Benzema from making his mark. The marksman held off Zinchenko, sweeping the ball into the net off the post. 2-1. Not long after that strike, another injury blow forced off Stones, so Fernandinho was now a target to exploit at right back. Game on?

A Pyrrhic victory?

Frenetic entertainment reigned after the break. Taking the initiative, Fernandinho nipped in front of his compatriot Vinícius to regain the ball from a pressing sequence. He bustled down the line, lifting a cross to Foden, whose header crashed past Courtois to restore the two goal lead. Back came Madrid promptly. From a similar phase of play, Vinícius sold Fernandinho a dummy, left him trailing in his wake, and tucked an effort beyond Ederson. Apprehension enveloped the Etihad Stadium once more.

City still held onto the lead but had fallen into a dangerous trap. By the hour mark, the hosts no longer camped themselves in the final third, engaging in back-and-forth action that could mask Madrid’s blatant flaws in organized phases of play. Hence, Pep’s men began to take the wind out of the guests’ sails. Ancelotti had also adjusted, bringing on Eduardo Camavinga to support Kroos in the middle of the park. Modrić then oriented himself towards Rodri, who was invariably free in space at the start of the first half. However, the reward for the intentionality of City’s poise would be yet another goal.

71st minute: defensive sequence from Real Madrid. Modrić covers Rodri, so Fernandinho dribbles diagonally to connect to the ballfar halfspace. The right back switches the focus of play to de Bruyne, drawing out Carvajal, whom Valverde protects through dropping backward to track Zinchenko.

In the left halfspace, Zinchenko chopped away from Kroos on the edge of the box to draw a foul. Many would have anticipated a free kick, but Bernardo was alive to the advantage. Picking up the loose ball, he hammered a strike into the roof of the net. Could City finally protect this cushion?

The answer was no. Laporte nodded the ball onto his flailing arm from a set-piece, giving away a penalty. Benzema stepped up from twelve yards, dinking a Panenka into the net. Twelve minutes later, the final whistle sounded. A Champions League classic leaves it all to play for next week.


Ahead of the return leg at the Bernabéu, Pep’s men will rue the current state of play with a slender one goal lead. Nonetheless, an ability to rip apart Real Madrid’s rearguard bodes well for their trip to the Spanish capital. For all the talk of the absence of a striker, this outfit is not short on goals, but it will be imperative to avoid conceding them on the road. In light of the returns of Cancelo and Walker, should City’s order keep in check the disruption of Madrid’s chaos, a place in the final will be theirs.

At the halfway point of this tie, it is a familiar tale for Real Madrid. Ancelotti’s men cannot expect to keep getting away with their back four facing severe spells of stress, yet, off the back of a dismal opening half hour to the contest, they continue to find ways to hold onto a lifeline. Their opponents are the best Europe can offer, and City may put similarly catastrophic defending to the sword next week. However, if this outfit has taught us anything, you rule them out of the tie at your peril.

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"Possession as a philosophy is overrated. Possession of the ball as a tool is underestimated." João Cancelo stan (19) [ View all posts ]


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