It’s a rare thing for Real Madrid to go into a Champions League knockout tie under less pressure than its opponents. The need for silverware in the Spanish capital is unrelenting, never mind that it already has a record 13 European crowns, as many as the second- and third-most successful clubs combined.
The pressures weighing on Manchester City, Real’s opponents in the first leg of their round of 16 clash on Wednesday, were heavier still. But they were alleviated significantly by Wednesday’s 2-1 come-from-behind victory over a 10-man Real at the Bernabeu. Gabriel Jesus and Kevin de Bruyne overcame Isco’s second-half goal before Sergio Ramos was sent off late.
The biggest thing burdening City is the sheer heft of the investment its Abu Dhabi ownership has made in the club in an attempt to sportswash the government’s reputation. Well north of a billion pounds has been spent on players, managers, infrastructure and other bespoke, state-of-the-art things. Results are expected. Four Premier League titles in eight years delivered on that side of the bargain. But nine straight Champions League appearances, the only ones in the club’s history, have produced one semifinal run, two quarterfinals, three round of 16 eliminations and two group stage exits.
Wednesday’s result gave City a solid lead, when you account for the away goals, going into the return leg in Manchester.
But there are dark clouds amassing above the Etihad Stadium. Earlier this month, UEFA banned City for the next two installments of the Champions League for violating its Financial Fair Players regulations and then stonewalling an investigation. The case will be appealed before the Court of Arbitration for Sport and possibly the Swiss courts as well, although it’s widely accepted that at least some of it will stick.
And that means City’s slow, meticulous march toward European dominance would be on hold. Or perhaps the pursuit of soccer’s biggest club prize will end altogether, for the ban could result in an exodus of players. And if it doesn’t happen organically, it might necessitate one regardless as the club would struggle to make its enormous payroll and stay compliant with FFP without the considerable Champions League income.
Manager Pep Guardiola’s string of Champions League failures adds yet another element to the need for his club to break through. After becoming European champions twice in his first three seasons of management with FC Barcelona, he has failed to win it nine straight seasons – although one of those was a sabbatical year. Between Barca and Bayern Munich, he has been knocked out in the semifinals five times. With City, he has yet to get past the quarterfinals – City’s only semifinal came the year before Guardiola arrived.
The Catalan is considered the greatest manager of his generation, and with ample justification, but his inability to prevail in Europe with a second club is considered a blight on his resume.
Things didn’t look promising for him when Real edged the first half of a tight opening leg. Karim Benzema nearly put the home team ahead at the half-hour mark, but his header was saved well by Ederson and Vinicius Junior slipped on the rebound.
On the brink of halftime, Thibaut Courtois slapped away a corner and it was almost bundled by Ramos, but Casemiro cleared it on the line – possibly the Brazilian’s last positive contribution before a nightmare second half.
Real took the lead against the grain on a quick breakaway, when Vinicius slipped the ball through three men and squared for Isco, who finished clinically (via Turner Sports):
City summoned a comeback, though and Jesus nodded past Courtois in the 78th minute:
Four minutes later, Dani Carvajal chopped down Raheem Sterling. Although City had missed five of its last seven penalty kicks, de Bruyne converted cleanly:
It got worse for Real Madrid. Ramos pulled Jesus back as he escaped on another bad Casemiro giveaway and the City striker gratefully went down on the edge of the box. Mahrez’s free kick rolled right to Courtois, but the veteran defender and captain had been sent off by then, meaning he is suspended for the return leg.
The odds now favor City to advance to a third straight quarterfinal. But it will have to do more to rise to the height of expectations. This, after all, could be the club’s last chance to win this tournament.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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