Manchester City resume their bid for a maiden Champions League’s title on Wednesday night, as they meet 13-time winners of the competition Real Madrid in the first-leg of the round of 16 tie.
This could potentially be Pep Guardiola, Fernandinho and Sergio Aguero’s penultimate appearances for the Blues in the competition, after UEFA announced a two-year ban from all their competitions, along with a £25 million fine two weeks ago. The club are actively working on an appeal to the Court Of Arbitration for Sport and continue to strenuously deny any wrongdoing.
Raheem Sterling looks to have won his race to be fit for the clash in Madrid, after the Englishman was announced as one of the 22 players in the travelling squad. The only noticeable absentee from that list Leroy Sane, who despite being pictured in first team training recently, isn’t yet match fit. Aymeric Laporte is also on the plane and is expected to make his third appearance in a week, after making his return against West Ham following several months out with a ligament injury.
Real Madrid will be without former Chelsea star Eden Hazard after the Belgian suffered a hairline fracture to his fibula at the weekend - an injury that will potentially rule him out for the remainder of the season. Marco Asensio is Zinedine Zidane’s only other long-term absentee, while Real rebel Gareth Bale missed their game on Saturday due to illness.
Head To Head
This will be just the fifth competitive meeting between Real Madrid and City with them having never beaten the Spanish heavyweights having drawn twice and lost twice. The sides last met in 2016 when Manuel Pellegrini led City to the final four of the Champions League for the first time where they suffered a 1-0 aggregate loss over the 2 legs. A 0-0 draw at the Etihad in the first leg followed by a 1-0 loss at Santiago Bernabeu.
Pep Guardiola’s team have won seven of their past ten games in all competitions and most recently edged passed Leicester in the league on Saturday evening, thanks to Gabriel Jesus’ 17th goal of the campaign. In Europe this season, City are so far unbeaten having won four and drawn two of their group stage matches, scoring a total of 16 goals.
Real Madrid are second in La Liga, just two points behind Barcelona, but have only won one of their past three matches after they were held to a 2-2 draw by Celta Vigo a fortnight ago, and then fell to a second league defeat of the season on Saturday in a 1-0 loss to Levante. They also won just three of their six group games and failed to beat PSG at both attempts.
Karim Benzema is Real Madrid’s top goal scorer this season with 18 goals - one goal more than Jesus and six less than City’s top scorer Sergio Aguero who has 24. Benzema also tops Madrid’s assist list with six this season which is just over three times less than Kevin De Bruyne who has 19.
Pep Guardiola has become known for over-thinking tactics and selection in big European away ties with his more defensive and compact 4-2-3-1 set up failing at Anfield two years ago, and then White Hart Lane the year later.
Understandably, this is a game of two legs, with City having the advantage of the away tie first, so could you really blame Pep for being more defence-minded on Wednesday? The City boss has frequently been using the 4-3-3 formation recently with some degree of success, but could we see him change it up?
He could play Nicholas Otamendi or John Stones alongside Laporte and move Fernandinho back into his preferred CDM role, or he could opt to play both Aguero and Jesus in a 4-4-2. There is also the option of Guardiola playing with no recognised striker, an approach that worked so well at Old Trafford in January.
Real Madrid’s most common formation is the 4-3-3, meaning in theory this could see both sides match up tactically together. However, in games against Atlético Madrid and Barcelona, Zidane chose a more defensive option with a slightly confusing 4-1-2-1-2 set up against Barcelona, and a 4-3-2-1 in the Spanish Super Cup final against rivals Atlético.
So how significantly does the threat of Manchester City coming forward affect the Real boss’ plans?
It will be an all Italian team in charge of Wednesday’s affair with Daniele Orsato taking charge of his 34th European match. He will be joined by assistants Lorenzo Manganelli and Alessandro Giallatini, while Daniele Doveri will be the fourth official.
VAR will be in operation, like it has been throughout this seasons competition and that will be manned by Massimiliano Irrati and Ciro Carbone.
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