Champions League Round Of 16 Preview: Can Real Madrid Stun Manchester City With A Leg 2 Comeback?

Posted By Tyler Everett on August 6, 2020

Who: Manchester City vs Real Madrid
When: Friday, August 7th @ 3:00pm ET
LineMan City -141 | Draw +340 | Real Madrid +345

* We’re looking at this match-up from the La Liga champs’ perspective in this piece – a City-focused take on Friday’s showdown is available here.

Considering this team’s track record in the Champions League, particularly under Manager Zinedine Zidane, of course Real Madrid have a legit shot when they travel to Manchester City on Friday at 3 p.m. Eastern.

But despite their torrid finish domestically, this team has a massive task on its hands. Oddsmakers don’t have RM at +450 to advance and City at -625 to go through because they lack respect for Real Madrid. That line just reflects the steep hole Zidane’s team has to dig its way out of after dropping Leg 1, 2-1 at the Bernabéu back in late February.

I expect a really close, entertaining game – I doubt Pep Guardiola would park the bus even if his team had won the first leg 10-1 – but otherwise, I just have questions on questions.

The “Certainties”

Before I get to those, here are a few things I feel confident in:

  • Los Blancos will miss Sergio Ramos. Their veteran captain will be unavailable after getting a red card late leg 1, as you might have heard. Speaking of info you’ve probably seen at least a few times this week, Real Madrid’s recent Champions League record without Ramos is discouraging. Of the last six UCL games he’s missed, his team has won just once. And he’s arguably more important to this team than any previous edition: in addition to manning a stout back line, he chipped in 11 goals as the closest thing his team had to a secondary option after Karim Benzema.
  • Friday’s match won’t end 0-0. A lot of teams – looking at you, Atleti – would take a 2-1 advantage from their away leg 1 into leg 2 at home and play “we’re not scoring, and neither are you” soccer. Guardiola’s teams are too offensive-minded to go that route, though — and they arguably lack the defensive consistency to even try it. Expect a first-half goal by one of these teams. I’m bold enough to make that prediction, but not bold enough to say which team will win.

And yeah, that’s pretty much it in the way of things I feel sure of going into this one. On to the most interesting of the many questions I have.

What will the starting XIs look like?

By season’s end, Zidane had a pretty defined XI for his biggest matches of the year, but the unique position his team is in means we should expect some tweaks for this one. As we said, Ramos’ absence means Eder Militao will be joining Carvajal, Varane and Mendy in the back line. Militao, 22, played in 15 games this season, with 10 starts. He has big shoes to fill against City’s potent attack, which could end things early if the Real Madrid back line slips.

There are big questions in the midfield and up top for Zidane. And no, I don’t mean, “Why are James Rodriguez and Gareth Bale out of the squad?” His lack of interest in those two for big games is old news at this point.

One of Los Blancos’ four solid midfielders this year (Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Fede Valverde) will likely be sitting this one out, at least to start. Casemiro feels like a lock to get a spot in the XI, but does Zidane go with the experience of Kroos/Modric or the physicality of Valverde? In leg 1, he went with Valverde, Casemiro and Modric, with Vinicius, Benzema and Isco up top.

This time, Benzema (going out on a limb here) feels like a lock. But between Vinicius, Eden Hazard (whose health is a major question I won’t pretend to be able to answer) and Marco Asensio, it will be interesting to see who joins the Frenchman in the lineup. The rule change allowing managers to make five substitutions will only add intrigue.

As for Guardiola, considering his absurd list of options – he’s got flexibility even with Sergio Aguero unavailable due to injury — and his willingness to do things like leave Raheem Sterling, Aguero and David Silva out of his starting XI in leg 1, who knows what to expect, lineup-wise.

My second (or sixth, if we were counting each question about Zidane’s XI) question is the big one:

How will Real Madrid fare playing from behind?

The “don’t let the other team score and eventually manufacture a goal, one way or another,” is a strategy that served this team well in La Liga. But my biggest concern, if I’m a RM fan, is that I don’t know how this team plays when it’s down. To be clear, it’s not a matter of toughness – Zidane strikes me as one of the best managers in the game at getting his team to play through whatever adversity it faces.

The question is whether this team can successfully shift gears from focusing on defense until the time is right for a counter to a more front-footed approach. As much as I want to believe in Zidane and these veterans because of their track record and strong finish domestically, this is a different beast, as the lopsided line makes clear.

Because I haven’t seen them do it before, and because RM’s one bona fide scorer other than Benzema (Hazard) may or may not be fit, I just don’t see Los Blancos doing quite enough to go through. And when has logic ever been upended in the UCL?

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