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Real Madrid v Manchester City: Can Guardiola make a Blue Moon rise over the Bernabeu?

By Dom Farrell

Madrid, February 26: Twelve days on from being barred from the Champions League for the next two seasons, Manchester City travel to face the most successful team in the history of the competition.

But, despite a UEFA punishment that will now be appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and a domestic campaign being contested at a distance from runaway Premier League leaders Liverpool, there are reasons for City to be optimistic ahead of their last-16 showdown against Real Madrid.

Here, we look at some of the factors that could prove decisive in Wednesday's first leg at the Santiago Bernabeu – a match that might come to be viewed as season-defining for Pep Guardiola and his players.

Laporte the leader and lynchpin

All eyes will be looking for Raheem Sterling's name when the City teamsheet drops in the Spanish capital, with the England forward expected to win his race to recover from a hamstring strain suffered last month.

However, Guardiola has already confirmed an arguably even more influential performer will be available.

"Aymeric Laporte's injury broke the defensive organisation," a source close to the City boss told Stats Perform and this conclusion is hard to contest.

Guardiola was without his central defensive lynchpin for almost five months due to a meniscus injury suffered during the 4-0 victory over Brighton and Hove Albion at the end of August.

In the three games Laporte has started since his return, City have won each time and collected three clean sheets – the former Athletic Bilbao star bringing an air of assurance and authority a makeshift backline has largely lacked in his absence.

Since he signed in January 2018, City have conceded an average of 0.6 goals per game in the Premier League with Laporte in the team. This jumps to 1.1 without him, with their win percentage down from 86.3 per cent to 60.7.

Indeed, in 28 top-flight games not featuring the Frenchman during this period, City have conceded 31 times – one more than the 30 let in across 51 matches with Laporte on the pitch.

"He just brings stability," former City captain and central defender Richard Dunne told Stats Perform.

"He reads the game well, he holds his position, he stays on his feet. He's a steady head in that defence. At times Nicolas Otamendi can get distracted and goes off out of position, John Stones can maybe dwell on the ball at times.

"For the whole team – for the midfielders in front and the goalkeeper behind – they can trust Laporte, they know what he's going to do and where he's going to be.

"Every defence needs a leader. Liverpool have one in Virgil van Dijk and City have missed it this season when Laporte's not been there."

Tactical flexibility

Laporte's lengthy spell on the sidelines also took a toll on City as an attacking force, with the build-up patterns so fundamental to Guardiola's style becoming a touch predictable and sluggish without the defender's astute range of passing from his immaculate left boot.

"A right-footer playing on the left tends to come back inside and the ball gets played down one side of the pitch the whole time," Dunne explained.

"A left-footer will play the ball down the line and City's game plan is to use the whole pitch. Laporte opens that up. He gives them more options in terms of playing out from the back."

Additional injury problems – such as the cruciate ligament damage sustained by Leroy Sane, who has not travelled to Madrid as he steps up work on the training field – have persuaded Guardiola to step away from the 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 setup that blazed a trail to consecutive Premier League titles.

The experiments have largely been successful, with Kevin De Bruyne dazzling in a variety of roles amid frequent shape shifting.

Phil Foden made his first Premier League start of the season on the left wing in a 4-2-3-1 at Arsenal in December, while the first leg of the EFL Cup semi-final at Manchester United saw City play a hybrid 4-2-4 without a conventional striker. In each match, Guardiola's men were 3-0 up at half-time.

Elsewhere, using three at the back occasionally has served to limit the opposition, if also compromising City's attacking flow. Zinedine Zidane cannot be sure what configuration he will face, although seasoned Guardiola observers might think this is something in the Real Madrid boss' favour.

Madrid an antidote to Guardiola overthink?

If a wildcard selection backfires, City's manager will once again face the accusations of overthinking that have dogged his Champions League failures since collecting a second European title in three seasons at Barcelona in 2010-11.

This can be traced back to his Bayern Munich suffering a 4-0 hammering against Madrid in a 2014 semi-final, when all-out attack backfired. Last season, City were left to rue a safety-first approach in the first leg when a riotous return versus Tottenham ended in a 4-4 aggregate departure on away goals.

In between those blots there was the swiftly abandoned ploy of man marking Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi as Bayern raggedly chased a vintage Barca around Camp Nou, before Liverpool ran roughshod over a packed City midfield at Anfield in 2018.

It should be pointed out that decent chunks of luck have gone against Guardiola and his teams during this barren run, while his tactical tweaks have helped to yield numerous successes elsewhere. Nevertheless, a narrative is established.

Perhaps facing an opponent with whom he has enjoyed a career-long rivalry, while leading a club seemingly in the throes of a siege mentality, provides a handy opportunity to break it.

Before losing 1-0 with Bayern, Guardiola was unbeaten in seven games as a coach facing Madrid at the Bernabeu. In El Clasico, his record reads nine wins, four draws and two defeats, during a period where Madrid called upon the might of Jose Mourinho, Cristiano Ronaldo and others.

Zidane's current crop featured many of the heroes of Los Blancos' three consecutive Champions League final triumphs between 2016 and 2018, although they have one win in their past four matches across all competitions and face a potentially decisive LaLiga showdown versus Barcelona this weekend.

Then there is the tantalising ingredient of Guardiola's stance in support of a Catalan self-determination – another factor to fire the most vocal elements at the Bernabeu, those sworn enemies who will hope not to witness another of his greatest deeds.

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Story first published: Wednesday, February 26, 2020, 12:30 [IST]
Other articles published on Feb 26, 2020
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