It’s almost time for the return of the UEFA Champions League and a big story is brewing already.
Real Madrid must travel to Manchester to take on Pep Guardiola’s City side looking to overturn a 2-1 deficit from their defeat at the Bernabeu back in March. Back then the prospect of a trip to the Etihad in their form without Sergio Ramos (suspended) looking to win by 2 clear goals seemed completely impossible.
Fast forward 146 days and it doesn’t seem so crazy.
Since then, Real Madrid have overturned a deficit in La Liga to win their 34th La Liga title and not lost a single game since the restart. They scored 21 goals and conceded just six in their 11 games en route to the title and come into the game knowing that Manchester City’s form has been hot and cold.
City lost three times since the restart including the FA Cup semi-final to Arsenal and were well beaten to the Premier League title by a rampant Liverpool side. While their skill and goalscoring ability is always a threat, they will be without Sergio Aguero for the tie while Leroy Sane has since joined Bayern Munich.
It’s a tie that on paper is mouth watering and on the pitch could prove to be spectacular. But how will Real Madrid approach it?
Without Ramos, Eder Militao is expected to start at centre-back alongside Raphael Varane with Dani Carvajal and Ferland Mendy at full-back. In midfield, Casemiro is a sure starter at the base while the likelihood is Toni Kroos and Luka Modric join him. Federico Valverde has struggled to recapture his best form since lockdown ended but his high energy in midfield could be a very useful alternative to have in the side. In attack, Karim Benzema will lead the line but he won’t have either Eden Hazard or Gareth Bale alongside him. The Belgian is a big doubt with another ankle injury, while Bale wasn’t selected as part of Zidane’s 24 man travelling squad despite full fitness. Vinicius Jr and Marco Asensio are most likely to join Benzema to complete the starting line-up.
The possibility of Vinicus going up front with Asensio in behind to compact the midfield a bit more is possible, although I think Zizou’s best hope will be to match City’s 4-3-3 and look to hit them on the counter with the pace out wide and ball-playing ability of his two midfielders.
He has plenty of depth too on his bench, with the likes of Isco, Rodrygo, Luka Jovic and Marcelo all excellent attacking outlets if needed.
Man City will undoubtedly look to attack as usual and with a fully fit squad other than Sergio Aguero, it will be interesting to see how they line up. Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Riyad Mahrez will likely line up in attack but the rest of the side is up for debate.
Zinedine Zidane has proven himself to be a world class manager as well as a world class footballer but now is his biggest challenge to date. If anyone can do this though, it’s Real Madrid. Because it’s the Champions League.