Match of the Year

26 February 2020: Real Madrid 1-2 City


Of all the Round of 16 opponents City could have been drawn against, arguably the tie that had the most stardust was locking horns with 13-times Champions League winners Real Madrid.

Los Blancos have undeniably been the kings of Europe’s premier competition and the Spanish giants represented a formidable hurdle for Pep Guardiola to clear if City’s ambition to win the Champions League was to be realised.

There is something magical about playing at the Bernabeu on a Champions League night with more than 75,000 fans packed inside and the 3,000 or so City fans who had travelled to Madrid that evening soaked up the atmosphere as the two sets of players lined up and the haunting competition theme echoed around the stadium.

Some of those who made the journey would have remembered the game in 2012, when City took a 2-1 lead with only five minutes of normal time remaining, only to concede twice and lose 3-2.

But that was then – City were Champions League newbies at the time and were up against the wiliest of opponents who perhaps sensed that adrenaline rush of being so close to a famous win – and knew how to exploit it.

Manuel Pellegrini’s side returned in 2016, on the brink of a first ever Champions League final, but after a 0-0 draw at the Etihad, his team were unable to take the game to the hosts and paid the price for not throwing the kitchen sink in the latter stages of a 1-0 defeat.

For this matchup, City were formidable opponents for Zinedine Zidane’s side and nobody knew how to defeat Madrid better than Guardiola, who had locked horns with Barcelona’s biggest rivals in El Clasico as a player and a manager more times that he could remember.

Pep had a plan and as the game began, it was clear that the awe the City team of 2012 had naively shown in the latter stages of the that group stage clash had been replaced with a steely determination, though no less respect for the prolific tournament winners.

Aymeric Laporte was five games into his long-awaited comeback from injury, while Gabriel Jesus and Nicolas Otamendi were recalled to the starting XI.

David Silva, Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling were among a stellar subs bench.

The opening 45 was cagey, with City marginally the better side, but the early loss of the influential Laporte to a further injury was a major blow. Fernandinho was summoned to take his place at the back alongside Otamendi and together they saw out the remainder of a goalless first-half.

However, despite Riyad Mahrez going close a couple of times, it would be the hosts who finally broke the deadlock 15 minutes after the break, as Vinícius Júnior broke forward before squaring to Isco to sweep past Ederson and put Madrid 1-0 up.

The goal had come against the run of play, but this was what Madrid did in this competition – they always believed that no matter what, they would find a way to win.

And as the clocked ticked towards the final 10 minutes, thoughts perhaps turned to a narrow loss at the Bernabeu not being a bad result.

But Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City were thinking a little differently and the magnificent Kevin De Bruyne’s cross into the box found the head of Gabriel Jesus who sent a fine header down and past the keeper to make the scores level with 78 minutes on the clock.

The adrenaline rush of City in 2012 that had resulted in a lack of focus was replaced by a belief that this game was there for the taking.

City shifted up a gear and went for the kill and when sub Raheem Sterling was pulled down by Daniel Carvajal five minutes later, De Bruyne coolly stepped up to send Thibaut Courtois the wrong way and make it 2-1.

Madrid were rocking and as Jesus threatened to burst through and increase City’s advantage three minutes later, battle-hardened warrior Sergio Ramos bundled the Brazilian over just outside the box and the referee correctly showed him a red card.

Ramos gambled that he might get away with it, but he was sure that a 3-1 loss would be the end so took the chance.

In the time that remained, the 10-man La Liga giants could have conceded again, but there was to be no more scoring and City were more than happy with a 2-1 victory – our first against Madrid and without doubt our most important Champions League result yet.

What nobody could have guessed was that the return leg in Manchester would not be played for several months as a global pandemic took grip a few weeks later and the world effectively stopped in its tracks

Football, the way we lived and the complexion of this tie... everything changed.

Reaction

"We tried to come here to win the game and we did it in this stadium. It’s just the first part and if one team can overcome this situation it’s this club. But of course it’s a good result. I’m so proud of course, but it’s just the first step. We have another game, so it’s not over. But enjoy it, of course, we spoke about that, enjoy the moment, good dinner, regeneration, on Sunday we have a final and keep going in the Premier League and prepare for the second game against Madrid.
“I would say when we were at our best we conceded a goal, that we should not have conceded, and when they were better we scored a goal. That is competition, that is football. We have to improve, so we do not give them the goal we conceded. But it’s part of the game and maybe in the future we will grow.”
Pep Guardiola

"I think it’s a very good start for the first game. The first 15 minutes we struggled a bit, but you have to go through the storm, and then an even first half and I think we started the second half really well and the goal comes at a bad moment for us because I think we were dominating at the time. But I think our response was brilliant."
KEVIN DE BRUYNE

Ederson; Walker, Otamendi, Laporte (Fernandinho 33), Mendy; Gündoğan, Rodri, De Bruyne; Mahrez, Jesus, Bernardo (Sterling 73)