Three things we learned: Real Madrid v. Man City

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Man City beat Real Madrid 2-1 in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg in the Santiago Bernabeu as Pep Guardiola‘s tactical masterclass left Zinedine Zidane scratching his head.

After Isco gave Real an undeserved lead, Gabriel Jesus and Kevin De Bruyne struck late on to make it 2-1 as the reigning Premier League champions take a crucial lead back to Manchester for the second leg.

Here’s a look at what we learned from a superb away display from Man City as they sealed their first-ever win against Real Madrid.


GUARDIOLA’S BOLD CHOICE PAYS OFF

Sometimes it seems like Pep Guardiola is too smart for his own good but this is why they pay him the big bucks. Man City’s manager left the experienced trio of Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Fernandinho on the bench alongside the fit-again Raheem Sterling and everyone was left scratching their heads with his team selection. Pep’s bold choice paid off. Kevin de Bruyne and Bernardo Silva operated as two false nines centrally, while Riyad Mahrez and Gabriel Jesus played out wide and did plenty of tracking back as they pinned back Real’s wingers and full backs.

Mahrez and Jesus would make runs in-behind Real’s defense whenever KDB and Bernardo got on the ball and it worked a treat. The only problem was that Mahrez and Jesus only took one of the big chances they were handed because they could have scored four or five. Guardiola’s side conceded after being undone by a sloppy defensive error which epitomizes their 2019-20 campaign but Pep’s bold choice paid off. Man City were the better, and more dangerous, team for vast swathes of this game and got the away win his ingenuity deserved. The decision to sacrifice the positioning of his two best playmakers in Bernardo and De Bruyne worked a treat as the displays of Mahrez and Jesus justified leaving Aguero and Sterling on the bench. Man City’s master tactician risked being ridiculed and labelled as an over-thinker once again. It was a risk which paid off.


REAL’S ATTACK ONE-DIMENSIONAL

Zinedine Zidane was without the injured Eden Hazard, while Gareth Bale started on the bench and there was a severe lack of creativity in the attacking third of the pitch. Karim Benzema lead the line and had one header on target in the first half but that was about it as he had 18 touches in the entire game. 18. Vinicius and Isco both failed to get the better of the Kyle Walker and Mendy respectively and without that extra spark Hazard or Bale could provide at the drop of a hat, Zidane’s side were predictable.

Real caused their own problems as Casemiro was the spare man and precision passing isn’t his best trait as City were dangerous on the counter. Real Madrid were timid and rigid and that isn’t something you’d expect from a Zinedine Zidane-side on a big European night like this. Zidane has made Real more pragmatic this season and Vinicius and Isco did make the most of a Man City defensive error to put the Spanish giants ahead before two late goals from Jesus and De Bruyne gave Man City the edge heading into the second leg. Real will need to take more chances at the Etihad and as their defensive display showed on Wednesday, they are not capable of shutting down City’s attack and Sergio Ramos will not play in the second leg due to his red card. Real are in big trouble and for once their failure to go all-out for the win cost them dear. That is very unlike Real.


DE BRUYNE LEADS DEFIANT CITY

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Kevin de Bruyne wore the captains armband with class in the Bernabeu and he was the beating heart and pulsating brain of this composed, yet brave, victory.

“We are only halfway there,” De Bruyne said afterwards.

With Aguero, David Silva and Raheem Sterling left on the bench, all eyes were on KDB and he delivered. He played as a false nine but instead of shrugging his shoulders playing in an unfamiliar role he embraced it and could be seen cajoling his teammates and demanding more in key moments.

De Bruyne’s display summed up his season so far: Brilliant.

His mood also summed up the defiance in Man City’s display as they lost Aymeric Laporte to injury and Fernandinho stepped in and made key blocks, while Ederson was also at his best as City’s defense only slipped up once. With a two-season European ban looming large, this City squad know this could be their last chance to win the European Cup until the summer 2023 when many of them won’t be around. Kevin de Bruyne would be coming up to 32 years of age then, if he is still at City. The defiance he and City’s squad played with proved they want to win the Champions League right now and put the UEFA ban to one side as their appeal is heard in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in the coming months.