Records are meant to be broken. And so it proved to be on Wednesday night as Manchester City defeated Real Madrid for the first time. The two clubs have met on four previous occasions in the Champions League, yet the Spanish giants have never tasted defeat against City. But the 2-1 loss in the first leg of the round of 16 meeting between the two sides could not have come at a better time for the Cityzens. As expected, Kevin De Bruyne was at the center of it all proving as important to the team as ever. But Pep Guardiola’s tactics proved the secret weapon on the night.
By no means was this an individual show from any one City player. It was a measured team performance that has characterised Guardiola’s winning teams over the years. Yet, the Belgian midfielder, who wore the captain armband on the night provided effective leadership for the team on the field of play.
It’s common knowledge that Real Madrid are ‘the king of this competition’ as Guardiola stated heading into the fixture. That doesn’t mean the 13-time champions cannot be beaten, even at home. Agreed, it takes a lot to achieve the feat. Suffering from the loss of talisman Cristiano Ronaldo, Ajax showed at this stage of the competition last season what was possible. The Netherlands side secured a remarkable 4-1 victory at the Santiago Bernabeu to dump Los Blancos out of the competition.
Since then, no other team has managed the feat, although the team lost away at Paris Saint-Germain in this season’s group stage. Zinedine Zidane made sure the Bernabeu has become a fortress in Europe again. Apparently, Kevin De Bruyne and his Man City teammates didn’t read the memo.
Except for Bernardo Silva, who put in a rather subdued performance, the rest of the players were impeccable.
Guardiola went with an unorthodox setup that was meant to neutralise the home team’s attacking prowess. But how was it supposed to produce the needed goals? Yes, De Bruyne does chip in a goal or two on occasion, but he is no striker. Neither is Bernardo. So why will they be deployed to lead the line while Sergio Aguero sits on the bench and Gabriel Jesus functions as a right-sided midfielder? Only Guardiola can answer that.
In the end, it worked. The disciplined approach produced the goods as the brilliance of De Bruyne, Jesus and Raheem Sterling won the day. It took a combination of errors from Nicolas Otamendi, Rodrigo and Kyle Walker for City to go behind. Vinicius Junior seized the opportunity to set up Isco for the first goal of the match after an hour. But City battled back like a team on a mission to secure a historic win. After finding Jesus to head in the equaliser, the Belgian completed the comeback with a well taken penalty that sent Thibaut Courtois the wrong way.
Of course, the tie is only at halftime. Madrid will visit the Etihad Stadium with one target in mind; to overturn the result and progress to the quarter-final of the competition. But the Blues have proven by the performance that they can complete the job. Clearly, lessons learned from the capitulation of the last three years under the Catalan gaffer have been brought to bear. Hopefully, the job is completed come March 17, especially as Sergio Ramos will play no part in the fixture due to his red card.