Real Madrid’s clash with Manchester City was always going to be the Champions League tie of the round, but events since the draw have turned this week into a moment of truth for both clubs.
Winning the European title has become City’s mission — certainly for the owners if not necessarily for all the fans — and what could be better than beating the serial winners on the way (apart from doing it in the final)?
Then came the Uefa Valentine’s Day bombshell, and the prospect of two years in the wilderness has made winning the Champions League this year into an overriding aim.
It is possible to exaggerate the impact of that ban. The sentence may yet change on appeal, Pep Guardiola has committed himself to stay, and talk of a player exodus seems exaggerated.
All the same, with Liverpool cruising out of sight in the Premier League, having already won the big one last summer, City’s bid to become the major force in English football is heading for the rocks. They have an ageing squad, a ban will hit them hard financially — unless they can summon the momentum to take them to glory in Istanbul next May.
For Madrid, this tie is less monumental, but their next opponents at the Bernabeu are Barcelona on Sunday and there is everything to play for.
It seemed everything was coming right for Zinedine Zidane and his players after Madrid’s debacle 12 months ago.
This time last year they collapsed on all three fronts in the space of a week, conceding eight goals in three defeats, two against Barcelona, followed by a 4-1 drubbing against Ajax.
It was all meant to be different this time, with Zidane back in charge, and they duly won the derby against Atletico, only to be knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Real Sociedad, and then drop five points in two matches against Celta Vigo and Levante.
Barcelona have been going through a rocky time, but they can still call on Leo Messi to find the netscore, whereas Madrid no longer score as freely as they used to. Sunday’s match is almost like a cup final — defeat would leave Madrid five points adrift and give Barcelona a vital head-to-head advantage.
Madrid’s strength this season has been their defence — they are now as mean as their city rivals who proved their quality yet again last week against Liverpool. The addition of Ferland Mendy, their French left-back signed from Lyon in the summer, has added security.
On the downside, they have become over-dependent on Karim Benzema for goals and have now lost Eden Hazard to injury, most likely for the rest of the season. Given Hazard’s patchy form, that might not seem such a huge blow, and they have Gareth Bale to come in, who is still a big threat despite his unpopularity with the fans. Their only other injured player is long-term absentee Marco Asensio.
“I feel much more comfortable when things aren’t going well. It’s time to stop speaking off the pitch and leave our mark on it”, said Sergio Ramos at the weekend, slightly ominous words from the holder of an impressive unique collection of red cards.
There is some needle to this match, but with all respect to Madrid’s notorious hitman, it is off the pitch not on it.
Pep Guardiola and his fellow Catalans, Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano, are public enemies for a large contingent of Madrid fans, Guardiola especially because of his public commitment to the cause of independence.
City Football Group also has a controlling interest in Girona, inland from Barcelona and a hotbed of Catalan nationalism. For years Girona were a marginal force in Spanish football, but on finally winning promotion to La Liga they immediately sold a 44% stake to CFG.
Then, just a year ago, Girona inflicted a memorable humiliation in the Bernabeu, coming from behind to secure a 2-1 victory.
To add insult to injury, Ramos was then sent off in added time, thus collecting a record 19th red card in his La Liga career.
City’s subsidiary are now back in the second division, but that one historic win more or less made up for their 87 years outside the top flight.
Of rather more concern to Zidane is Guardiola’s excellent record against Madrid. One defeat in eight visits (when he was in charge at Bayern Munich) — ‘The Scourge of the Bernabeu’ The Scourge of the Bernabeu, in the words of a headline in yesterday’s Marca.
One of those visits was a stunning 6-2 win, and Guardiola has never endeared himself to the Madrid faithful, with a series of caustic comments and put-downs over the years.
“This is not about Zidane versus Guardiola” said the Madrid manager yesterday, insisting that Pep remains the best in the world.
Nevertheless, this is a huge game for both of them, as well as their clubs.