Five ways Manchester City can beat Real Madrid in Champions League crunch
If Manchester City are to reach the Champions League final for the first time in their history, they’re going to have to beat a Real Madrid side which have only lost twice at home this season in La Liga, and haven’t conceded a single goal in their last five games at the Bernabeu.
To make things even more difficult for Man City, it is expected that goal-scoring phenomenon Cristiano Ronaldo will return from injury to start. Man City are going to have to score. Mission Improbable.
But what can Manuel Pellegrini do to win this game?
Real Madrid's biggest strength is also the cause of their biggest weakness. Unlike a hopeful interview candidate, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema's dilemma is not that they work too hard but the opposite – they might be one of the most lethal attacking trios in the game’s history but their lack of positional acumen makes their own team far more vulnerable to attack.
At times Los Blancos resemble an expensive collection of individuals as opposed to a solid defensive unit and Wolfsburg's surprise 2-0 win over Real highlighted the lack of defensive awareness and discipline they display at times.
In the screengrab above, five of the eight player players in shot are creative attacking players - only the triangle of Pepe, Sergio Ramos and Casemiro are any good at defending.
A lack of defensive cover from both Gareth Bale on the left and Cristiano Ronaldo on the right gave the German side numerous opportunities to stretch the play, with Julian Draxler causing problems throughout by running directly at a midfield and defence packed with attack minded talent but without real defensive balance.
By running directly at the midfield, Julian Draxler causes all sorts of problems. This is the sort of run that Kevin De Bruyne is especially good at making.
Kroos and Modric get drawn in by Draxler's movement across the the front of the box and the midfielders are far too tight to each other, offering little or no shielding to the defence. Because Bale hasn't bothered tracking back, Marcelo has to defend in the box and this leaves space out wide - the back four is stretched and all over the place. Arnold plays on Ramos' blind side and runs to the near post to score from the cross.
Kevin De Bruyne and Jesus Navas can benefit from the space left in behind Marcelo and Dani Carvajal if Real’s attacking crew focus on grabbing headlines instead of keeping their shape and structure. Zidane has had a big influence on this team and a lesser-spotted “Ronaldo tracking back”, as seen in the first leg, makes that a big if.
Frustrate the home side
If the superstar trio aren't available, Pellegrini has an entirely different set of circumstances to think about. The longer the game remains tied, the more pressure will build on the home side and the more likely mistakes will be made.
Lucas Vasquez, Jese and Borja Mayoral ran out of ideas in a narrow 1-0 win over Real Sociedad on Saturday and if the BBC aren’t fully fit, Real Madrid may struggle to break down a City defence marshaled by Vincent Kompany.
It took until the 80th minute for Gareth Bale to take advantage of a Vasquez cross and the home side were able to break up attacks and clear away hopeful high balls into the box with relative ease before eventually succumbing to constant pressure from a technically superior team.
City are better.
In the first leg, other than two loose balls in the box from corners, Real's best chance of the game came from Dani Carvajal running down the right wing and crossing for Jese. The forward hit the bar with his header but what is worth noting here is the lack of Real Madrid players in frame.
In La Liga, during any given Real Madrid attack you tend to see about five or six attacking players gathering around the area to try and score or recycle the play.
In the 3-2 win over Rayo Vallecano - the match they played before the Man City Champions League game - you can see how they usually surround the box.
If Zidane has all three of his attacking stars available for Wednesday evening's Champions League match, we are far more likely to see situations closer to the game against Rayo Vallecano where Real's attacking players surge forwards, giving City a massive opportunity to attack on the counter - the exact plan they wanted to execute in the first leg.
Take advantage of Casemiro's absence
Injury has ruled Karim Benzema out of the game on Wednesday night but another player's absence will cause the Real Madrid manager bigger problems.
After a 1-0 defeat to Atletico Madrid in February, Zidane addressed his side’s lack of defensive balance by quitting failed attempts to find a place for James Rodriguez in the team.
Atletico's goal in that derby came from Antoine Griezmann stealing the ball from Luka Modric in Real’s half, instantly bypassing the entire midfield and having a clear run at the exposed defence
The midfield trio of Modric, Kroos and James are too tight to each other and don't have cover behind them to make mistakes. As soon as Griezmann wins possession, he can bring the ball to the box as the defence is left left exposed. Griezmann plays in Filipe Luis down the left, who returns the pass to allow the Frenchman to score from just outside the box.
Casemiro was brought into fix a vulnerability in midfield and without the Brazilian playing his usual holding role, Real lack grit, steel and stability and are extremely vulnerable to fast counter-attacking sides, as their free scoring, defensively ignoring Galacticos are caught out of position when going forwards.
Modric and Kroos are brilliant midfielders but do not provide the kind of cover Casemiro does. He is the one who breaks up play, gives the ball back to the creative minded forwards and provides a shield for the centre-backs. Real simply do not have a replacement for him in their squad.
City must take advantage.
Play Kelechi Iheanacho
The hamstring injury David Silva picked up last week means Pellegrini will need to bring in a replacement. Just as Ronaldo is a defensive liability for Real Madrid, Yaya Toure’s lack of effort when it comes to anything resembling defending makes City vulnerable, though he is the most likely to replace the Spaniard.
Another option is to change system to accommodate for the in-form Kelechi Iheanacho who has scored nine goals from eight starting appearances this season. City have played in a 4-4-2 quite often under Pellegrini and with the red hot Nigerian dragging defenders around the place, Sergio Ramos and Pepe would have a far tougher job keeping tabs on Sergio Aguero.
That said, Iheanacho didn't exactly light up the Etihad in the first leg and Pellegrini may prefer to field the experienced Toure just behind Aguero in a safer 4-5-1.
Defend corners properly
Both of Real Madrid's big chances against Manchester City came from corners and it may well be a similar story in the second leg. Ramos, Ronaldo, Pepe and Bale are all excellent in the air, and it was Bale's flicked header that nearly allowed Pepe the chance to score in the 82nd minute.
Joe Hart saved the day with an incredible point-blank save but Pellegrini cannot rely on such luck at the Bernabeu.
If their two best goal scoring opportunities of the last game came from corners, you can assume Zidane will be expecting similar in the return leg and have his team shoot and cross in positions that are likely to yield such a set piece.
Pellegrini must drill his team on their positioning at set pieces if they are to avoid Death by Corner.