Manchester City secured a deserved 2-1 win over Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu to earn Pep Guardiola’s side a significant advantage in their Champions League round of 16 tie.
An engrossing opening to the match saw both sides struggle to carve open a meaningful opportunity, until ?Gabriel Jesus was denied from close range by Thibaut Courtois.
?Karim Benzema was next to force a goalkeeper into action, but with his downward header looking destined to produce the opening goal, Ederson’s low save halted his celebrations as Vinicius Junior slipped after the rebound with the goal at his mercy.
Despite City looking strong, it was the hosts who drew first blood, as a pair of mistakes from Nicolas Otamendi and Rodri culminated in Vinicius feeding Isco, who slid beyond Ederson.
City had looked the more likely to score a goal throughout, and they got the goal their performance merited when Jesus out-jumped Ramos to head beyond Courtois’ despairing dive. There was still time for a pivotal second goal, as Kevin De Bruyne put the Cityzens in front from the spot after Raheem Sterling was brought down by Dani Carvajal.
There was still time for Ramos to see red for hauling down Jesus, handing ?City a major advantage ahead of the return leg.
Key Talking Point
Tactically the talking points ahead of the clash were all on how Pep Guardiola would line his side up, so when Zinedine Zidane opted to field Isco wide and drop Toni Kross from the side, the pendulum of discussion swung the Frenchman’s direction.
And, well, you can say for the first 60 minutes, it wasn’t working. Madrid were coming up short in the final third with each foray forward, rarely looking like testing Ederson as Isco was forced to turn infield each time he received the ball on the flank. Neither Federico Valverde nor Luka Modric were willing to surge forward in fear of leaving Casemiro unguarded, and it was all too frustrating for the hosts.
Changes were not rung at half time, and for 15 minutes of the second period there was little to suggest a change in dynamic from before the break.
That said, when you’re granted an opportunity and you take it, then your previous failings are forgotten. Isco may have scored, but there is no forgetting how Madrid performed. They were second best throughout, and the scoreline was a fair reflection of their negative approach.
Starting XI: Courtois (6); Carvajal (5), Varane (7), Ramos (5), Mendy (7); Valverde (6), Casemiro (7*), Modric (6); Vinicius (7), Benzema (6), Isco (6)
Substitutes: Bale (6), Vazquez (5), Jovic (5)
There were question marks over Madrid’s lack of creativity in the final third, but there could be no such queries over their strength at the base of midfield. Casemiro was a rock in the centre of the park, blocking passing routes when he could and feeding the wide players in a bid to force the issue.
Lacking Toni Kroos on the pitch meant his role was given the added incentive of long range passes and, for the most part, he did so efficiently. Madrid’s failings were no fault of his own, even if he scoreline was against his side.
Key Talking Point
Was Pep Guardiola going to ‘overthink’ things again? Was he going to tinker far too excessively and sacrifice his side’s undoubted strengths in favour of conservatism? Based on the lineup, yes.
?Starting XI: Ederson (8); Walker (8), Otamendi (5), Laporte (7), Mendy (6); Rodri (6), De Bruyne (8), Gundogan (8); Mahrez (8), Jesus (8*), Silva (6)
Substitutes: Fernandinho (7), Sterling (8)
As a striker, it was a surprise to see Gabriel Jesus tasked with providing cover to Benjamin Mendy as an unorthodox left wing-back. It shouldn’t be really, as we know how Guardiola is, but nevertheless few saw it coming.
More intriguingly though, few could foresee him playing with such discipline when Madrid were on the ball, yet busting a lung to surge forward whenever possession was overturned. His all round performance was superb, and the goal was just rewards for his dedication.
Gabriel Jesus best match for Manchester City and nothing else comes close.
— Rafael Hernández (@RafaelH117) February 26, 2020
Gabriel Jesus’ best performance to date
— Martigol (@FlyBoyFatah) February 26, 2020
Gabriel Jesus…what a night for him, never seen him work so hard in a game. What a match to give your best! #RMAMCI #UCL
— ???I?IT | ?????? ??? (@abhi9_k) February 26, 2020
Next up for Real Madrid is a Clasico showdown with fierce rivals Barcelona – top spot being at stake in La Liga – while Man City face an equally colossal clash as they take on Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup final.