The point has often been made this season that La Liga’s giants have shrunk in stature. Neither Real Madrid nor Barcelona have been anywhere near their best this term.
Indeed, Los Blancos’ mere cohesion as a more stable unit in the second half of the season, rather than convincing superiority, earned them the league title over their dysfunctional rivals.
Despite a commendable resurgence to be crowned Spanish champions, Real Madrid are well short of the standard required to rule Europe and on Friday night Manchester City proved as much.
The La Liga outfit’s 2-1 defeat at the Etihad – 4-2 on aggregate – ended their Champions League run in the round of 16 with Zinedine Zidane tasting his first elimination from the competition in his fourth managerial campaign.
It was hardly the most emphatic scoreline and the fact that Raphael Varane’s errors contributed to both goals made the contest seem closer that it was, as did the defender’s admission of guilt in a remorseful post-match interview. The Frenchman is an easy target and an obvious scapegoat after two poor back passes resulted in goals for the opposition. However, to suggest that Madrid were masters of their own downfall would be doing City a disservice.
In reality, Zidane’s men were technically and tactically out-classed.
Pep Guardiola adopted a system that the opposition couldn’t get to grips with. Gabriel Jesus played off the left flank with Phil Foden operating as a false nine, regularly dropping into far deeper roles unmarked while Raheem Sterling would push forward and inside. Right-back Kyle Walker spent much of his time in central midfield where he helped control play as the extra man and City’s front three pressed Madrid’s back-line relentlessly.
And what made this performance all the more impressive was the threat the opposition posed as well. Toni Kroos and Luka Modric were largely overrun in midfield but when they did get on the ball their undoubted quality would often surface while Karim Benzema was truly sublime whenever he managed to get involved.
Even though they’ve been below par, Madrid’s illustrious players presented City with a challenge which they overcame in style. The visitors missed the commanding presence of skipper and star centre-back Sergio Ramos who was serving a suspension but it’s hard to envision a different outcome even if he featured.
Having spent much of the last five months with little else to think about but this encounter, such a display should not surprise Guardiola. In fact, he may even be disappointed that they didn’t kill the game off earlier given the host of chances they squandered.
What this European encounter also confirmed is that City dropped the ball spectacularly this season. Yes, they have issues within their squad, particularly in defence, but there’s no way a team bursting with this much quality should put up such a feeble title defence as they have.
There’s simply no excuse for this group of players, under this manager and playing this brand of football to finish 18 points behind Liverpool in the Premier League. A 4-0 thumping of the champions last month suggested that the gap in the league table may not be an accurate representation of the gulf between the two sides.
It’s a failure which must gnaw at Guardiola but he has an opportunity now to rectify it and turn a disappointing season into a success by winning the coveted Champions League trophy that’s eluded him for nearly a decade.
Given the way City’s squad has been managed of late and the level of sharpness they’re enjoying, they may even be favourites. Bayern Munich may be the only side capable of keeping them from their European dream
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