The reward for finishing top in the group stage of the Champions League is usually getting an easier draw in the next round. For Manchester City that has not been the case this season. The Sky Blues were handed a difficult draw for the Round of 16. Pep Guardiola and his charges are set to visit the Santiago Bernabeu in February for the first leg of their Champions League double-header. Is the team ready for the big test?
When it comes to the Champions League, Real Madrid holds the candle for no one. The Spanish giants are the Kings of Europe. With 13 Champions League trophies in the cabinet, no other team on the continent comes close. What’s more, the club has been evergreen in the competition. The winning started from way back in the beginning of the competition and has lasted to as recently as last year.
This is the formidable opposition Manchester City must face and conquer to have any chance of lifting the trophy this term. It doesn’t help to also know that head-to-head, Los Blancos have an edge over the Cityzens in previous meetings. Back in 2012 when the two sides squared up in the group stage, Madrid triumphed over two legs with a 1-1 draw at the Etihad Stadium. Karim Benzema and Sergio Aguero netted for their respective teams. That was after the Spanish side won the first leg 3-2.
In 2016, Manuel Pellegrini’s team suffered a semi-final elimination at the hands of the Spanish giants losing 1-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu. The first leg at the Etihad Stadium ended 1-1.
But there are reasons to be confident despite the unpleasant results of the past.
1. Manchester City has learned and grown over time
Yes, the Cityzens have come a long way since the days of Roberto Mancini. Investment in the team has brought success (even if just on the domestic scene) over the years. With several achievements to boast of including a record-breaking treble last term, the team has grown in confidence.
The six, five, four in the headline represents the goals City conceded to exit the competition at the hands of Monaco, Liverpool and Tottenham respectively in the last three campaigns. Surely, that poor run must come to an end someday. And why not against the biggest opposition out there?
City’s director of football Txiki Begiristain stated it perfectly when commenting on the draw against Real Madrid:
”We want to be the best, so we want to beat them,” he said.
2. Real Madrid have not been the same since winning their last Champions League
It was a free fall for Les Merengues after starman Cristiano Ronaldo left for Juventus at the beginning of last season. The team was a shadow of itself last term in the competition and was knocked out by Ajax in the quarter-final. Although the team is regaining some of its powers after a spending spree to rebuild the squad last summer, the cracks are still there. A 3-0 humiliation by Paris Saint-Germain in the group stage showed just how low the team has fallen. It took victories over lowly-rated Olympiakos and Club Brugge to progress to the next round. Madrid could not beat PSG even in the return leg at home.
Manchester City must aim to take advantage of this. Historically, matches between the two sides have been a close call. Only one goal has been the difference. Guardiola also knows the team well from his time at Barcelona. He has previously recorded several victories against the side. So winning with City will not be out of place.
3. Aymeric Laporte should be back by February
There’s no denying the fact that the Frenchman has been sorely missed in the last few months due to his injury. He is scheduled to be back in time for the two-legged encounter in February. That should serve as a big boost for the team. And if Leroy Sane is also back, it’ll be the icing on the cake. A fit Sergio Aguero will give Karim Benzema a run for his money as will Laporte, Sergio Ramos.
In midfield, Luka Modric is not the same player he was two seasons ago. But if Toni Kroos comes to the party, we have Kevin De Bruyne. Raheem Sterling cancels out Eden Hazard. On their day, Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy will best what Danny Carvajal and Ferland Mendy will bring to the table.
What remains is the mentality each team will bring to the pitch and the manager’s tactics. That is where Guardiola must prove that he can do big things in the competition without Lionel Messi. Because based on the football both teams have played in the last two seasons, Manchester City trumps Real Madrid. The Sky Blues are ready to conquer the continent.
If not now, when!