Pep Guardiola was appointed Manchester City manager to win them the European Cup, and this year he comes up against competition masters Real Madrid in the round of 16.
Los Blancos have won the competition a record 13 times, six more titles than AC Milan who have won the second most with seven.
Three of these 13 titles have been won under none other than club legend Zinedine Zidane, the former Real player is an icon of the competition having won it as a player in 2002, scoring one of the conceptions most iconic goals in the final in Glasgow- and three times as a a manager between 2016 and 2018.
Zidane’s Real welcome Guardiola’s City to the Bernabeu, a ground where the Catalan has won a Champions League first-leg knockout tie before (in 2011 with Barcelona) and lost one (in 2014 with Bayern Munich).
Barcelona legend Guardiola travels to the Spanish capital again six years later bidding to become the first manager to beat Zidane in a Champions League knockout tie.
1. Kroos and De Bruyne: Masters in the art of midfield play
Toni Kroos and Kevin De Bruyne are two of the finest midfield players in world football, and they come together on opposing teams at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Kroos won the World Cup as Germany’s centre piece in 2014, and he was also the centre piece of Zidane’s three Champions league triumphs between 2016 and 2018, playing a key role in each of the final victories against Atletico, Juventus and Liverpool.
The German midfielder loves having the ball at his feet, and he makes everything that’s so hard look ridiculously easy. He plays in a very similar way to Manchester United legend Paul Scholes.
“He’s one of the most important players in the team because he sets the rhythm the team plays at in the way he manages the ball,” Kroos’ Real teammate Casemiro said of him.
“If Toni wants the team to slow things down, the team will go a little slower – or if he wants to up the pace, the team will play a little faster. So basically, the way we play is determined by Toni Kroos.”
The statistics speak for themselves, Kroos has averaged a 90 percent pass accuracy in EVERY Real Madrid game he has played in since he joined Los Blancos in 2014.
Guardiola managed Kroos in his first season at Bayern in 2013/14. He improved under Guardiola in the Bavarian red of Bayern, but he has somehow improved even more under Ancelotti and Zidane in the classic white of Real.
Guardiola will know that if City are to beat Real over two legs, they’re going to have to have a plan to limit the influence of Kroos.
Guardiola has someone arguably even more talented than Kroos at City right now, De Bruyne has made 16 Premier League assists so far this season and he can do everything a midfielder can do. Literally everything.
De Bruyne, along with Bernardo Silva, as well as being excellent footballers are supreme athletes and their work rate is going to have to be at their highest if they’re to get around Kroos and Luka Modric and stop them from controlling the tempo of the game.
This is something Ajax midfield trio Frenkie De Jong, Lasse Scöne and Donny Van de Beek did so well in the round of 16 last year as Ajax beat Real 4-1 at the Bernabeu- a result that was more about Ajax being outstanding than Real being below their required level.
Ajax overran Real, and that’s what City are going to have to do over two legs if they want to repeat Ajax’s incredible feat of last season.
It certainly won’t be easy, but if they can find a way to deal with Kroos while simultaneously unleashing De Bruyne’s ability, the tie may well tilt in favour of City and vice-versa from a Real perspective.
Whoever preforms better out of Kroos and De Bruyne over the two legs may well decide the outcome of this glamour tie.
2. Set pieces and Sergio Ramos
Real can hurt teams all over the pitch, but one man who is as effective as anyone in front of goal for Los Blancos at crucial times is their centre-back and inspirational leader Sergio Ramos.
Ramos scored in the nick of time to force the game into extra-time in the 2014 Champions League final, and scored again from a set piece in the final two years later again- also against Atletico.
No team is more well-organised than Diego Simeone’s Atletico side, but even they can’t cope with the threat of Ramos in the box.
It’s hard enough for even the most rigid teams, and it will be even harder for Guardiola’s City who have struggled from set pieces.
After they shipped three goals against Norwich in September, it meant that after that game, 16 of their last 29 goals they conceded came as a result of a set piece- 55 percent overall.
Ramos will be licking his lips when Real have a corner or free-kick, and with dead ball specialists Kroos and Modrić standing over the ball City won’t like the prospect of marking Ramos, particularly with their zonal marking approach.
Real don’t have the exponential threat of Cristiano Ronaldo anymore, which is a positive for any opponent playing against them.
But marking Ramos from a set piece is at times just as difficult as keeping tabs on Ronaldo when he’s in and around the box, and against City the Spain legend will fancy his chances to add to the 115 career goals he’s already scored from defence.
3. Agüero’s frustrations playing against Madrid
Agüero has never scored a goal at Anfield in nine attempts, but at home against them he’s imperious having scored seven goals.
One team he has very little joy against is Real, in 14 games against Los Blancos including 11 Madrid Derbies during his time at Atletico, City’s leading marksman has never been on the winning side in all 14 games- losing nine and drawing five.
He was left frustrated against them in the semi-finals of the Champions League for City four years ago as Ramos and Pepe held firm in the Real backline and kept two clean sheets over both legs.
This time around, Agüero will be looking to break his hoodoo against Real.
He’s one of the best centre-forwards the Premier League has ever seen, but in the Champions League he hasn’t proved himself so much in the latter stages of the competition, scoring just one goal in the quarter-finals or beyond in the tournament- in last year’s quarter-final second leg against Spurs.
There’s no doubt he’s one of the hardest tasks for a defender, and Real’s defence can’t afford to rest for a single second over the two legs if they’re to keep him out again just as they did in 2016.
His frustration against Real has most likely reached boiling point now, so we could finally see Agüero unleash his very best against them and rise to the occasion of the Champions League knockout stage.
4. City’s free-scoring attack against Real’s water-tight defence
The best attack in Europe against the joint-best defence in Europe’s top five leagues.
City have scored a staggering 269 Premier League goals since the beginning of the 2017/18 season, their attack has been in consistent free-scoring form over the past three years.
Against Real, they face perhaps their most firm test yet against a team who have conceded just 17 goals in La Liga so far this term.
Zidane has some fantastic talent at his disposal, but in the Champions League he’s pragmatic and his vast experience as player in the competition transfers to the sidelines as a manager.
World Cup winning duo Ramos and Raphaël Varane form a rock solid axis at the back for Real Madrid, and they’ll be putting their full guard up when Guardiola’s City come to town.
Zidane has beaten City in the Champions League before in 2016, a year the Citizens scored the most goals in the Premier League.
— Real Madrid C.F. (@realmadriden) February 25, 2020
He’s used to coming up against free-scoring teams in Europe: Bayern Munich in 2017; PSG, Juventus and Bayern in 2018; before playing Liverpool in the final who they beat 3-1 in Kiev.
Zidane has come up with the answers against teams like City in the Champions League before, so City should be just as concerned about Zidane and Real’s tournament IQ than Real should be about City’s abundant attack.
5. Zidane’s Champions League knockout invincibility
In nine Champions league knockout ties as a manager so far, Zidane has won nine and lost none.
In contrast, City have only ever won four knockout ties in Champions League history since they qualified for the tournament for the first time in 2011- these wins have come against Dynamo Kiev, PSG, FC Basel and Schalke.
To become the ‘great’ team they’re touted to become and to make the next step in their Champions League journey, City must beat a top European team and experienced campaigner.
Experienced campaigners don’t come with any more pedigree than this Real side, and whoever knocks them out, if indeed anyone does, has a great chance of winning the competition.
Right now, Zidane has an aura of invincibility about him as a manager in Europe’s premier club competition.