It’s the heavyweight clash of the Champions League titans that we’ve all been waiting for. Manchester City welcome Real Madrid in the second leg of their last-16 showdown on Friday with a spot in the next round at stake.
Both teams are likely to have envisaged themselves lifting the coveted jug-eared piece of silverware, but it is City who hold the most slender of advantages. Isco’s opening goal at the Bernabeu saw the 13-time winners edge in front, but Pep Guardiola’s tactical tinkering transpired to be a masterclass.
City have put countless teams to the sword this season, and can also boast about possessing Europe’s most prolific strike force. The pressure cooker environment that is Real’s home ground is the perfect breeding ground for tension and uncertainty – but Gabriel Jesus and Kevin De Bruyne both netted to complete the comeback.
The feat was made even more impressive considering that City started the tie without a recognised No 9.
Jesus was fielded from the off, but often found himself drifting into wide positions. It was De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva, both blessed with enviable amounts of trickery, who took it in turns to lead the line.
It is this flexibility that has seen City top the scoring charts. But their task is far from over, of course. Real are a formidable force on the European stage and are more than capable of securing a result on the night in Manchester.
Their triumph in the 2015-16 season, and their successful defence of the title for the next two campaigns, demonstrates that.
The legendary Zinedine Zidane has recently presided over the continent’s most watertight backline – rendering this game the unstoppable force versus the immovable object.
The sight of Guardiola clutching his arms behind his head after City were dumped out of Europe by Tottenham on away goals last year is likely to still haunt the 49-year-old tactician. He will be desperate to avoid a repeat.
But he will also certainly be aware that scoring again will further pile the pressure on City’s rampant Spanish opponents. Guardiola can be confident in his team’s ability to do just that. Their 102 goal tally in the league makes them the highest scoring team in Europe, outgunning Bayern Munich’s 100.
And in all competitions this season, City have racked up a mammoth 146 goals, just ahead of Bayern’s 143.
Despite losing out on retaining the Premier League title to Liverpool, City were able to comprehensively outscore the newly-crowned champions. The Reds found the target 85 times instead, laying bare the brutal reality that it is the Etihad outfit’s defence which failed them.
Their approach to attacking certainly differs from Real’s. Guardiola has not structured his attack in the knowledge that his team will be able to withstand pressure to claim invaluable points.
Time and time again City have wilted at the back, and these collapses have cost them dearly. Instead, it is the club’s fearsome ability to score a hatful which has transformed them into a trophy-winning juggernaut.
Raheem Sterling finished the top flight campaign as City’s top scorer with 20 goals. The England international, who was benched for the first leg in Madrid, has also been more than capably supported by his team-mates. Sergio Aguero netted 16 times, Jesus plundered 14 and De Bruyne bagged 13.
The same players have guaranteed City goals season after season. Aguero will miss the return leg, according to Guardiola, but the man at the helm will not be too disheartened considering the choice of firepower at his disposal.
Riyad Mahrez has enjoyed a new lease of life this season after a slow start following his big money move from Leicester. The tricky winger scored 11 in the league, part of the 13 hitmen from City’s roster of riches.
Also among those to have beaten a goalkeeper this season after Bernardo Silva (six), David Silva (six), Phil Foden (three) and Rodri (three).
It would certainly be fair to argue that whoever lines up for City on Friday will be more than capable of popping up with a potentially tie-defining moment of brilliance.
Jesus and Sterling have scored five times in the Champions League this season and both will play a key role once again in ensuring City’s progression to the next stage.
But the defensive woes that have dogged them far too often are a stark contrast to Real’s heroics and solidarity at the back.
Zidane’s men pieced together a winning streak of 10 games to wrestle the LaLiga crown from arch nemesis Barcelona by five points. However, it is arguably their steadfast nature in defence that has paved their path to domestic glory.
Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois clinched the Zamora Trophy, the gong awarded to the stopper who has the lowest goals-to-games ratio.
The Belgian international shipped just 20 league goals in 34 games, leaving him with an impressive average of just 0.59 goals shipped per game. This is the third time he has won the award, and he bettered Unai Simon and Jan Oblak to claim it.
In front of him, Real have been similarly superb. Ferland Mendy has proved one of the best signings of the season at left back, and Dani Carvajal has fought back from the brink to restore his spot as one of the league’s finest defenders.
The duo are supported by one of LaLiga’s most impenetrable defences. Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane has fronted up to countless threats and dealt with them with consummate ease. The former has even chipped in with 10 goals from centre back, a niche but all-important reason behind Real’s eventual title win.
There can be no denying that the fine margins at stake in the Spanish top flight have become even more pronounced over the course of the last 11 months or so.
LaLiga games have become centred around tactics and are a war of attrition, meaning clubs need a solid and reliable blueprint to guarantee success.
Real are blessed with just that. They allowed in a mere 25 league goals this season, which equates to 0.66 goals per game. This record betters that of city rivals Atletico, who have built their reputation under the stewardship of Diego Simeone on their watertight defensive antics.
The composure on show from Ramos and Varane is unparalleled. Both are capable of building up attacks from the rear and they are also renowned for their ability in the air.
The prime example of their ability this season came against Barcelona in March. The 2-0 victory for Real strengthened their title tilt, and both defenders starred by marshalling and nullifying their world-class opponents.
In addition, the full backs possess the dynamism and sheer will needed to hare up and down the flanks for 90 minutes. Both are capable of holding a strong defensive line, leaping into challenges or leading a breakaway down the other end to relieve the pressure.
This dream back four, however, will be ripped apart on Friday. Ramos will be absent through suspension, a loss which has been made even more notable after the 34-year-old’s late-season heroics.
He has once again been let down by his tendency to collect bookings like they are mementos. And his rash nature may cost his team dearly.
Real’s last three big Champions League fixtures without their captain have all ended in heavy defeats. They also conceded 10 goals in the process.
Ramos has missed six European games for the club over the last two years, and five of those resulted in losses. It comes as no surprise that the talisman has jetted to Manchester alongside his team-mates to deliver an all-important pep talk before the game.
Real, of course, will be relying on that little bit extra motivation to carry them through what will certainly be an enthralling and nervy affair. May the best attack, or defence, win.