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A Closer Look at City's Likely Knockout Opponents

A brief, but focused look, at City's most likely knockout stage opponents.

Angel Martinez

On the heels of City’s knockout stage birth and Danny’s lookahead to potential opponents, I thought an in depth look at the tactical styles of each team might be fun. So without further ado, the four most likely opponents for City come the knockout stage (this provided Arsenal, Chelsea and United finish top of their groups, thus making Groups F, E and A irrelevant to City in the draw).

Atletico Madrid:

Perhaps the most tactically formidable side available to City, they tend to play in a 4-4-2, unafraid to drop deep, cede possession and break on the counters. A properly good side, the attention to detail, the defensive shape and their speed on the counterattack would make Atletico one of the more difficult opponents City might draw.

Of the four likely opponents, only Atletico have averaged less than 50% possession in their league matches. While City sit at a 59.7% possession rate, Atletico are quite the opposite, having only seen 46.9% of the ball through their first 12 league games. Thus, a matchup between City and Atletico would allow both sides to play their preferred styles: City keeping the ball while Atletico sit back, compact and structured defensively, waiting for their chances on the break – something City have been shockingly poor at defending this season.

Potential lineups (this of course not considering potential injuries) and formations:

City’s 4-2-3-1: Hart, Clichy, Nastasic, Kompany, Zabaleta, Fernandinho, Yaya, Silva, Nasri, Aguero, Negredo

Atletico’s 4-4-2: Courtois, Luis, Godin, Miranda, Juanfran, Koke, Gabi, Suarez, Turan, Costa, Villa


Barcelona have been incredibly diverse in their attacking style under new manager, Gerardo “Tata” Martino. In previous years, Barca had sometimes been too reliant on one style, and when it worked tiki-taka proved to be world-conquering, but when it didn’t the lack of plan B often cost the Catalans. No longer. With Neymar’s arrival, more rotation, and revised tactics, Tata’s Barcelona can attack in more ways, playing the traditional tiki-taka or, when necessary, reverting to a more long-ball, direct approach.

A matchup against Barca would prove quite tricky for City, as the Citizens would likely see less of the ball than we are typically used to (Barca, well becoming less reliant on possession still keep the ball at an astounding 67.3%), and we all remember watching City chase Bayern’s shadows while having to drop deep to defend. Advancing against Barcelona in a two leg tie, would require a defensive performance reliant on a structured and cohesive off the ball approach – something Pellegrini’s City have not achieved this campaign

Potential lineups and formations:

City’s 4-2-3-1: Hart, Clichy, Nastasic, Kompany, Zabaleta, Fernandinho, Yaya, Silva, Nasri, Aguero, Negredo

Barca’s 4-3-3: Valdes, Adriano (or Alba – hard to pick), Mascherano, Pique, Alves, Iniesta, Busquets, Xavi, Neymar, Messi, Sanchez


What a tie this would be: I have little doubt it would be billed as the battle of high spending clubs owned by Arabs, but that would be missing the point. PSG are a side with so much attacking talent it would be difficult to predict how the might approach a two leg tie against City. Laurent Blanc’s preferred formation has looked like a 4-3-3 with Cavani, Ibrahimovic and Lavezzi on the front line, with a more than capable midfield trio anchored by Blaise Matuidi and tempo setters, Thiago Motta and Marco Verratti , a duo that has been among the more impressive midfielder units in European football this year.

Yet again, a Club who keeps possession at an impressively high rate (64% in fact) – but having seen them struggle to keep the ball at times, it seems likely that City would have a far better chance at playing their preferred style than against Barca (a team that really only opts for directness when pressed high up the pitch – a tactic that City are less than good at). While PSG have often played a 4-3-3 with an attacking trident, it isn’t unreasonable to think that Blanc might shift to a 4-4-2 with some combination of Matuidi/Verratti , Verratti/Motta, or Motta/Matuidi in midfield while opting for the pace of Lucas Moura and Lavezzi on the wings, playing Ibra and Cavani up front in a two striker system.

Potential lineups and formations:

City’s 4-2-3-1: Hart, Clichy, Nastasic, Kompany, Zabaleta, Fernandinho, Yaya, Silva, Nasri, Aguero, Negredo

PSG’s 4-3-3: Sirigu, Maxwell, Marquinhos (or Alex), Silva, Van der Wiel, Matuidi, Motta, Verratti, Lavezzi, Ibra, Cavani

Real Madrid:

I won’t try to hide it, this is the tie I want to see. Not just because I think Madrid offer City the best chance to advance, but because of the compelling storylines that would accompany it: Ronaldo back in Manchester, Bale back in England, Pellegrini against his former side and Pellegrini’s prodigal son playing against the club he spurned.

Since his arrival in July, Carlo Ancelotti has yet to make any significant tactical imprint on a side in desperate need of exactly that. With Bale just returning to his injury-free self, Madrid might finally be settling into the side they’ll look most like for the rest of the season – a squad that practically chooses itself. The only way to comfortably fit Isco and Bale in the starting lineup (without moving Bale to left-back – a position he’ll likely never play again but would create a terrifying left sided attack of Bale and Ronaldo), is to play a 4-3-3 with Ronaldo, Benzema and Bale on the front line with a midfield trio likely anchored by Sami Khedira with Isco and one of Modric/Alonso ahead of him. And while it’s a star studded XI, it lacks any semblance of the balance often required in CL winning sides.

This might be the one matchup where Pellegrini’s now-preferred XI could be altered (the other would be against Barca if Pellegrini saw Milner’s defensive discipline necessary). As Marcelo likes to move forward from his left-back position (and this is not to say he’s a poor defender, because I think that’s a media perpetuated myth), there would be space to attack on Madrid’s left flank – thus it might be reasonable to expect Navas to play on City’s right, with Nasri dropping to the bench.

Potential lineups and formations:

City’s 4-2-3-1: Hart, Clichy, Nastasic, Kompany, Zabaleta, Fernandinho, Yaya, Silva, Navas, Aguero, Negredo

Madrid’s 4-3-3: Lopez, Marcelo, Ramos, Pepe, Arbeloa, Khedira, Modric/Alonso, Isco, Ronaldo, Benzema, Bale

Some Closing Thoughts:

Pellegrini has already accomplished what Mancini (for a variety of reasons) could not: that is, advance to the knockout stage of the Champions League. The task ahead of the Chilean only becomes more difficult now as the most likely matchups are world-class sides, all capable of winning the competition. With each matchup will obviously come with a different tactical approach, some requiring tinkering (Barca and Madrid, specifically) while others would result in very little changes (especially Atletico). For my part, I want very little of Atletico, a team that is so difficult to break down and so lethal on the counter attack, and Barca, a side with weaknesses, but not necessarily weaknesses that align with City’s strengths.

But strangely, a more difficult task awaits City: an away day at the Stadium of Light.