The marquee match-up of the Champions League round of 16 is the clash between reigning Premier League champ Manchester City and UCL juggernaut Real Madrid. Unfortunately for those anxious to see this one kick off, this is a “saving the best for last” situation, as these two meet February 26 at 3 p.m.
Los Blancos are in first place in La Liga and recently reeled off a streak of 21 games without a loss. That tear ended with a Copa del Rey quarterfinal loss to Real Sociedad on February 6. More recently, Zinedine Zidane’s team stumbled to a disappointing home draw last Saturday vs. Celta Vigo, but RM remains a formidable foe for UCL second-favorite (+425 in futures) Man City.
Pep Guardiola’s team was always going to be a wounded animal in this tournament because of how things have gone in the EPL. But with the organization now staring at a two-year ban from European competition for next season and ’21-22, it’s sure to be as all-in on this year’s UCL as any team could ever be.
The events of the last couple weeks don’t change my faith in Real Madrid, which is +145 to City’s +162 in Leg 1 and +140 to go through compared to City at -167.
Below is the case for why Real Madrid would be a solid bet at even money (I think), and why, at +140, they’re absolutely worth a small investment.
Reason 1: They’re tough to crack
The team that has allowed the fewest goals through 24 games in La Liga is not perennially stout Atleti. It’s not Getafe, either. It’s Los Blancos, who have surrendered just 16. Thibaut Courtois shook off an up-and-down start to the season and looked like one of the game’s best keepers throughout December and January.
The RM back line has also impressed. Surprise, surprise in the cases of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane. Right back Dani Carvajal and left back Ferland Mendy are also making life difficult on opposing forwards. You might look at recent results and question the Real Madrid defense, but the 4-3 loss to Real Sociedad came with Courtois resting and only Varane of the usual starting back four on the pitch.
On Sunday, the 2-2 draw to Celta Vigo gave us the latest evidence that Mendy has to be in the lineup ahead of Marcelo, as Los Blancos were once again worse for the absence of the 24-year-old Frenchman.
Man City will test RM in a way they haven’t been all season, save for the first Clásico of the season and the group play clashes with PSG, which were instructive. Zidane’s team was in shambles on September 18, when they lost to the Parisians 3-0. But the La Liga leaders controlled the rematch in late November, leading 2-0 with 10 minutes to play before a couple miscues allowed PSG to pull out a 2-2 draw.
Real Madrid also stifled Barcelona at Camp Nou in December, earning a shutout against a healthy front three of Antoine Griezmann, Luis Suárez and Lionel Messi. In their last two games against elite offenses, they’ve played lockdown defense for 170 of 180 minutes.
Reason 2: Eden Hazard is back, and should be rested
Hazard is expected to lift an attack that’s been deep – 17 (!) players have scored in La Liga this season – but nevertheless a little more dependent on Karim Benzema than Zidane would prefer. His return last Sunday comes at the worst time if you’re a City supporter, giving Benzema a proven commodity to combine with.
Nearly three months after an ankle injury sidelined him for most of his team’s impressive run, he stood out against Celta Vigo and drew a penalty that Ramos converted in the 65th.
Goals-wise, this team was getting it done with a formula of Benzema and a little bit from a lot of others, particularly midfielders Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Casemiro. They are now (obviously) that much more dangerous with an in-form Hazard in the mix. Have we reached the point where the sum of Hazard, Benzema, Rodrygo, Vinicius and Luka Jovic give this team enough up top that whatever Gareth Bale contributes is gravy?? That’s still hard to wrap your head around, but right now, yes.
Reason 3: One of the few midfields you feel confident in against City’s firepower
A healthy Kevin De Bruyne, which Man City has enjoyed all season – he has an absurd 15 assists and seven goals in 23 EPL appearances — is as scary as anyone on the planet. He will by no means be shook by the sight of Casemiro and Co., but the RM midfield should at the very least make life difficult for him.
That group was the story of the game when Los Blancos drew Barcelona in December, and they might be the key to this team’s chances at a UCL run this season. Kroos and Modric are known commodities, and they haven’t slowed down this year – they have three goals and four assists apiece – but it’s the physical, imposing play of Casemiro and Federico Valverde that has given the rest of La Liga fits.
If those players are half as effective helping their team control the ball against De Bruyne and City as they have been night in and night out in Spain, what could be Guardiola’s last Champions League run in Manchester could be abbreviated.