Pep Guardiola faces his most important test as Manchester City manager when the side travel to Real Madrid in the Champions League round of 16 tonight. The Catalan boss has won everything there is to win in football, but through all that winning, it’s been almost ten years since he hoisted Europe’s greatest trophy.
The Champions League trophy has found every way possible to allude Pep Guardiola and his teams throughout the year. This year, though, is an inflexion point. Between Manchester City’s potential European ban and Guardiola’s expiring contract, this feels like the Spaniard’s most crucial test.
Pep Guardiola Faces His Most Crucial Test
Takeaways from Leicester City
The Leicester City game has some important insight into Manchester City’s planning. Pep Guardiola probably did not expect Leicester to come out sitting so deep. Brendan Rodgers’ side were keen to seed possession and try and hit City on the counter. In the early part of the game, it looked like the right choice.
However, after Jamie Vardy hit the post in the sixth minute, things really quietened down. Manchester City did a great job of taking the sting out of the game and keeping Leicester from countering.
That defensive solidity will be vital for Manchester City’s trip to Madrid. Having Aymeric Laporte available for 90 minutes will be even more vital. Guardiola confirmed after the Leicester game that Laporte, who was subbed off in the 57th minute, would be available for the full match in Madrid, and City’s defence will be all the better for it.
The Current Real Madrid
Having Laporte at the back will make defending this Real Madrid side much easier. This is not a perfect Madrid, nor is it the counter-attacking assault of the Cristiano Ronaldo era. This is a Real Madrid team that will turn the game into a grind. In a grind, Laporte will shine.
However, having Laporte back does not mean Pep Guardiola will head into this game worry-less. Real Madrid still have plenty of options to scare Manchester City. They’re still expected to start seven or eight players with four Champions League trophies to their names. No matter their age, only a fool would overlook players of this quality and prestige
The one thing experienced players with this pedigree don’t have is pace. Nobody is going to expect Toni Kroos or Karim Benzema to run past them. They will also be missing some serious creativity after Eden Hazard fractured his ankle on Sunday. There have been plenty of teams who thought they had them under control only to have Benzema running into the corner to celebrate minutes later.
In the end, Zinedine Zidane has sacrificed the chaos of the past in search of stability; hoping his world-class players can do the rest. Trusting his players is how Zidane will always manage, which is why there is no reason to expect him to come out in anything other than a 4-4-2 block and let his players do the rest.
What Will Pep Guardiola Do?
How will Pep Guardiola and Manchester City get past Real Madrid? Firstly, with patience. Guardiola has learned from his losses this season and finally given Rodrigo some help. Ilkay Gundogan has started with Rodrigo in all but one game since Christmas.
Gundogan’s presence gives Rodrigo a comforting level of protection. He knows he won’t be alone in defending the counter if Manchester City loses the ball upfield. It hasn’t made the offence any better but you can see the desired effect in City’s back-to-back Premier League clean sheets.
All of it shows that Pep Guardiola was trying to improve his team’s solidity headed into the hostile Santiago Bernabeu. Conventional wisdom says that any team playing a European game in Madrid should be aiming for damage limitation over anything else. However, Pep Guardiola might have something else up his sleeve.
Pep Guardiola’s Plan
Guardiola has been setting his team up to force Real Madrid to change their game, but not drastically. This isn’t some in-over-their-heads squad, this is Real Madrid. By giving this team a little more the ball than they expect, though, Manchester City could force the mistake they need.
By giving Madrid a little more of the ball, someone like Dani Carvajal or Federico Valverde or Sergio Ramos will inevitably make a mistake. If Real Madrid are compact or defending deep, those mistakes aren’t likely to be fatal, but in games like this, a mistake when your team is pushed up the field attacking will be a knife through your heart.