The Spanish-based journalist says despite the 2-1 deficit and the significant absence of talismanic captain Sergio Ramos, Zinedine Zidane’s side will arrive at the Etihad Stadium confident they can fight back to reach the quarter-finals.
Hunter has lived in Spain since 2002, reporting on the country’s golden age from close quarters and chronicled Pep Guardiola’s time at Barcelona in his book, Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World.
mancity.com spoke to him before tonight’s crucial Champions League tie to discuss the pre-match talking points and to get the inside track on what we might expect from the visitors...
What was the reaction in Spain to the first leg result?
Graham Hunter (GH): There was a lot of media focus on whether Pep’s ideas had outfoxed Zidane in terms of positional play and substitutions.
As much as City were tactically shrewd and understood and applied the plan cleverly, there was a sense in the aftermath of losing that it could be the end to a very poor campaign.
They went on to lose 2-1 to Betis in the next game and went into lockdown behind Barcelona in the title chase and they knew they were going to Manchester without Ramos if there was a second leg.
So there was gloom. The media reaction had a great deal of respect for City. There was debate about whether Jesus had used his arms, but there were no ‘we were robbed’ headlines.
Given Real Madrid’s European pedigree, do you think they will come to the Etihad Stadium with more confidence than most?
GH: I think they will. If you take them one by one and what they have done in their individual careers, the first thing that stands out is that there is a massive amount of technical quality.
Real Madrid are far more improvised, with the belief they can outplay you across the pitch, compared to what is a really structured, thoughtful and identifiable City style. There is a big disparity there. But Madrid’s team is full of guys who have played in World Cup finals, who have repeatedly won the Champions League and are extraordinarily good.
Real Madrid have never gone through after losing at the Bernabeu in the first leg of a European Cup or Champions League tie. For a club like them, that is a gigantic statistic, because you would have imagined that there would have been a time in all their eras when they would have made a slip at home and still gone through.
Coming to City and thinking that they can win is simply part of the bricks and history of Real Madrid and it is not arrogance. There is enough ability in that team and they have just been crowned champions, which has become quite an irregular thing in Spain, so that’s quite a big boost.
I think many teams would go to City, whether 2-1 down or not, and probably try to play conservatively. Madrid won’t do that. They definitely believe they are capable of winning.
How big an advantage is it for City that Sergio Ramos is suspended for Real Madrid?
GH: Although he is a phenomenon, I wouldn’t argue that he doesn’t offer a team like City opportunities. When he plays, it is not like he is infallible, because he does things which a smart, analytical coach, like Pep, and players with clever movement like City have, can take advantage of.
There is no point thinking if Ramos was playing, Real wouldn’t give up a single chance and would go through. But I think everybody who has ever watched Sergio Ramos, particularly in his later life, knows that he is a phenomenon, not just of sport, but of human spirit.
He is a guy that makes sure that everybody around him gives their absolute maximum. If you see him in the line-up you think, whatever happens, there is a chance they will win today.
During lockdown he worked hard to be at his physical peak, and he was the star of the 11 games that led Real Madrid to the La Liga title. I think he was in different shape to when City won 2-1 at the Bernabeu, when he was a little bit off his game. He scored six goals in 11 games from the restart. For a centre-back to do that at 34 is pretty special.
His absence takes that gigantic effect of everyone around him raising their game because they’ll be scared to go back in the dressing room without a proper performance. It takes away a genuine goal threat, because from headers, free-kicks and penalties he is one of Real Madrid’s big threats.
If you take that whole picture, it is a really big loss. No team is a one-man team, but it is a really big loss to go to City without that particular player.
It is a finely balanced tie, which team do you think has the edge to get over the line?
GH: If it was level and Ramos was playing, I would say Ramos would score. He is outrageous. I would have to say, if Sergio Aguero was on the pitch, it would be a shootout as to who would score first.
It is hard to call. City are favourites to go through, I think. It is a big advantage and that historical idea about Madrid never going through in these circumstances is very persuasive because to break an all-time record you have to be an extraordinary team.
I am not certain the XI that steps out without Ramos is equipped to mark a new page in history, but it is not impossible either.