Following a tactically interesting but overall dull first half, the second half of this Real Madrid vs Manchester City first leg burst into life. There was a lot of action and it wasn’t all good for Real Madrid. After Isco put Los Blancos ahead, Pep Guardiola’s side fought back and earned a 2-1 win with a goal from Gabriel Jesus and a Kevin De Bruyne penalty. There was even time for Sergio Ramos to get himself sent off and suspended for the second leg, so we have lots of questions to tackle here.
1. Would the Toni Kroos decision come back to haunt Zidane?
The biggest headline from Real Madrid’s line-up was the absence of Toni Kroos. The German has had an excellent season and his ease with the ball at his feet would have surely been useful against the press of Manchester City, however Zinedine Zidane decided to leave him out and to opt for Casemiro, Fede Valverde, Isco and Luka Modric instead. Some reported that Kroos was carrying an injury issue, but Zidane seemed to dismiss that notion with his comments in his post-match press conference. So, how detrimental was the Kroos decision? Well, we can look at it two ways. On one hand, the fact that Zidane went for just four midfielders and not five meant that Vinícius could start and the Brazilian’s impact was massive. On the other hand, there was probably another midfielder who could have been left out instead of Kroos. Yet Valverde, Isco and Modric all had good games, so to have left one of them out would have brought about its own disadvantages. In the end, this was simply a technical decision and one which we’ll all have to accept.
2. Would Guardiola keep up his impressive Bernabéu record?
When Guardiola’s pre-match press conference started on Tuesday, he let out a grin. A big grin. He looked like he was enjoying being back at the Bernabéu. And he had good reason to be content and comfortable at this ground as he had such a good record there. Going into this week’s match, Guardiola had five wins, two draws and one defeat at the Bernabéu and he made that record even better by winning in this one. So yes, he kept up and even bettered his unique Bernabéu record.
3. Who would be the best Mendy?
This was the battle of French left-backs named Mendy. Real Madrid’s Ferland Mendy went up against Manchester City’s Benjamin Mendy, even if they were on opposite corners of the Bernabéu pitch. And there was absolutely no doubt about who was the better player. Ferland Mendy was one of the best players in the Real Madrid side, while Benjamin Mendy was Manchester City’s weak link. Dani Carvajal didn’t have his best game, but the good news for the Spaniard was that Benjamin Mendy was so poor that the Spaniard wasn’t truly punished.
1. Why Bale?
Everyone who was at the last Managing Madrid live podcast and who will be at this Thursday’s live podcast in Madrid knows that this author is a Gareth Bale supporter. But… there was no way he should have been brought on in this game and at the moment when he was. Real Madrid had just gone ahead and had managed to turn momentum on their side after Manchester City started the second half so well. Then Zidane introduced the least energetic and involved player he has in his squad right now, taking off the persistent Vinícius. Bale had come up with special Champions League moments in the past, but he does not seem to be in the right physical or emotional state to repeat those heroics right now. So, why? Just... why?
2. Can Courtois keep this up?
Keylor Navas was so vital during Real Madrid’s three-in-a-row Champions League success and now Thibaut Courtois is being called to have a similar role. In this match, he was certainly important and he made several important saves. In total, the Belgian registered six saves and a couple of them were really impressive. After some pretty unfair criticism following José Luis Morales’ unexpected and swishing near-post strike for Levante last weekend, Courtois responded with a Navas-esque performance. It wasn’t enough to win this game, but it was enough to keep Real Madrid very much in this tie and Zidane will have to hope that the goalkeeper can keep this up at the Etihad.
3. How will Real Madrid cope without their leader?
Note the way this question is phrased. After Sergio Ramos picked up his red card and suspension, I don’t want to know if Real Madrid can cope without Ramos the centre-back. Instead, I want to know how Real Madrid will do without Ramos the captain at the Etihad. I believe that Éder Militão can come in for Ramos and do a great job as a centre-back, as he has done alongside Raphaël Varane against Getafe, Sevilla and Club Brugge. Even away at a team as powerful as Manchester City, I believe in the Brazilian. However, the big problem with Ramos’ red card is that Real Madrid lose their emotional leader and that kind of emotion has been so important over the years in this competition and that lack of emotion has been so detrimental over the years in matches such as the Juventus second leg of 2017/18 or the Ajax second leg of 2018/19. It’ll be interesting to see who steps up as a leader in Ramos’ absence, with Karim Benzema set to wear the captain’s armband at the Etihad as vice-captain Marcelo will likely be on the bench again as well.