STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 15: Mario Balotelli of Manchester City looks on during the Barclays Premier League match between Stoke City and Manchester City at the Britannia Stadium on September 15, 2012 in Stoke on Trent, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Roberto Mancini's Manchester City are still in the process of evolving from the defensive, conservative counter-attacking side they were in 2010 to the more possession based attacking side they were through most of last-year. The transition now nearly complete, City are apparently growing comfortable as an aggressive, attack-minded unit.
The Premier League champions now favor a possession oriented, short passing approach and there have been times through the first four matches of the season (most notably against QPR) where glimpses of a finished, potent brand of intricate attacking football have shone through the murk. Once the pillar of the team, the defense has largely been unsettled as Manchester City have conceded 6 goals in 4 league matches and that sudden vulnerability is certainly something Real Madrid will hope to exploit.
Whether it was due to his lengthy layoff/golf vacation or the fact that he was indeed able to earn a Premier League title with City upon his return from exile last season, Carlos Tevez appears fit, focused and extremely dangerous heading into the group stages of the Champions League. Until this weekend, Tevez had scored in each of City's first three league matches. Tevez has also provided excellent service, picking out Eden Dzeko for the match-winner against QPR and supplying the long, looping ball that was headed home by Javi Garcia to equalise against Stoke.
Real Madrid's defense looked confused and at cross-purposes early on against Sevilla and it's imperative that they be more alert against Tevez and his strike partner (most likely) Mario Balotelli. Balotelli shone for Italy in the European Championships over the summer but has been slowed down by eye surgery and has only just returned to City's lineup. Roberto Mancini usually prefers a healthy Balotelli to Dzeko, so I expect to see Balotelli in the lineup at the Bernabeu. Rumor has it that Sergio Aguero will be available Tuesday, but I don't expect him to figure much in this particular match.
Perhaps the lynchpin of the entire Man City evolution is David Silva, who likely was rested against Stoke on Saturday to be fresh for the match against Real Madrid. Silva is City's primary creative catalyst, providing an inventiveness and cutting edge to their attack that is extremely hard to defend. He has also quickly reestablished a lethal brand of chemistry with Tevez. It will be crucial for Real Madrid to somehow contain the fluid Silva who loves to roam inside from the flanks and play precise, damaging through balls in to the forwards. Samir Nasri is also given license to operate on the flanks, cutting inside like Silva where the two often switch, causing panic in the back four.
A case can also be made that Yaya Toure is perhaps City's essential player, as his versatility, not to mention strength, instincts and pace, allow him to be deployed anywhere in the central midfield as well as in a more advanced role (this happened against Liverpool) behind the forwards in which he is extremely effective as a playmaker and an attacker.
Vincent Kompany recently emphasized the impact the absence of defensive midfielder Gareth Barry has had on the club's inability to keep a clean sheet and Mancini should be able to utilize Barry against Real Madrid, as he made a substitute appearance against Stoke on Saturday.
Manchester City signed 4 players on the eve of the transfer deadline, giving the side depth at every position, but also necessitating a period of adjustment as the new arrivals settle in. Three of those signings: Maicon, Scott Sinclair and Javi Garcia debuted at Stoke, with Garcia's aforementioned header providing the team's only goal. Maicon is a veteran presence with experience at the highest levels of the game, so I wouldn't expect his learning curve to be too steep, but it remains unclear how Mancini plans to utilize the other new players.
According to Zonal Marking, Mancini has been experimenting with an unusual 3-4-1-2 formation through the early part of the season. It was deployed against Liverpool in a league match and also against Chelsea in the Community Shield. It remains to be seen whether Mancini would opt for a back three against a side of Real Madrid's quality. Whatever the formation ultimately is--Manchester City will look to retain possession with short-controlled passing, look for precise, opportunistic through balls and capitalize off set-piece opportunities. That last strength of City's is one that Jose Mourinho should be paying very close attention to, as set-pieces have been a tremendous weakness for Real Madrid recently.
How do you think Real Madrid should approach this match-up with Manchester City?
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