On April 29, 1970, Manchester City wore their cult favorite red and black stripes against Polish side Górnik Zabrze in Vienna for the final of the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup. The game was played in front of less than eight thousand spectators as the Citizens emerged victorious in a fairly tight 2-1 win. Interestingly, every Manchester City player in that starting XI was English and every player in the Górnik Zabrze starting lineup was Polish. It was Manchester City’s singular most memorable night in continental football.
That can change on Friday night if Pep Guardiola’s troops get past Real Madrid — the latter of whom have never been knocked out of the Champions League with Zinedine Zidane at the helm.
Real Madrid have won everything in European football except the only European title that Manchester City have in their trophy cabinet — the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, a tournament that was played among Europe’s domestic cup winners and which was later abolished by UEFA in 1999. Between the inception and the demise of the Cup Winners’ Cup (1960-1999), Real Madrid won three European Cup titles (in 1960, 1966, 1998) and two UEFA Cups (in 1985 and 1986). But the Cup Winners’ Cup continued to elude them.
Manchester City’s first ever European Cup appearance can be dated back to the 1968-69 season, after they conquered the First Division of English football in 1967-68. Their European Cup run was cut short by Fenerbahçe in the first round. After that, Manchester City would not make a single Champions League appearance until the 2011-12 season. But they made seven Europa League appearances in the meantime and went on to play in the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup on two occasions.
When Manchester City won their Cup Winners’ Cup in 1970, Real Madrid were going through a slightly different phase in Spain. After winning eight La Liga titles in the previous decade, Los Blancos were enduring a rough patch. They finished sixth in the domestic table and saw arch rivals Atletico Madrid clinch the title. Real Madrid came agonizingly close to winning City’s Cup Winners’ Cup title the following year, but they fell short against another English side — Chelsea — in the final. Real Madrid would get another crack at this title in 1983, only to lose to Scottish outfit Aberdeen.
Until 2012, Real Madrid not winning something that Manchester City had won was perhaps the only European link between the two clubs — the rivalry between them was non-existent. Manchester City spent most of their years away from European football when Real Madrid were winning Champions League titles left and right. Even in the modern era, following the cash influx from the United Arab Emirates and after winning four Premier League titles in the last decade, Manchester City are still lightyears behind Real Madrid’s European pedigree (to be fair to the blue side of Manchester, there is no other team in that has the All-White’s European pedigree). Nevertheless, despite the historical chasm between the two, here we are, glaring at Real Madrid’s biggest game of the season against none other than Manchester City.
Pep Guardiola’s men have earned the right to contest a game of this magnitude, though. Disregarding the contrasting number of accolades between the two teams, City came from behind at the Santiago Bernabéu to snatch a crucial 2-1 victory.
The inevitable legend of Sergio Ramos
Manchester City faced Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League for the first time in the 2012-13 season. It was the last season of Jose Mourinho’s three-year reign at the Santiago Bernabéu. If we rank the two most iconic Real Madrid photos during that season, the heart-wrenching sight of Sergio Ramos crying on the shoulders of Iker Casillas would probably be at the top. Ramos could not take his team to the final despite scoring late in the 2nd leg of the Semi-Final, allowing Jürgen Klopp’s Dortmund to progress by the narrowest difference in the aggregate score.
The second most iconic picture from that famous (or rather infamous) season is probably Jose Mourinho’s euphoric slide onto the pitch after Cristiano Ronaldo scored a stoppage time winner.
This occurred during Real Madrid’s opening fixture of the Group stage in 2012 and in their first ever Champions League encounter with the Citizens. Sergio Ramos was relevant in that game as well, though not for his usual reasons; Mourinho dropped him to the bench in order to pair Pepe with a 19-year old Raphaël Varane.
Later, Mourinho said:
Ramos did not play because the coach decided it was better for him not to play. I want to leave it very very clear that there are no problems between me and Sergio Ramos, no disciplinary issues, it was just a sporting decision. At this moment, Raphaël and Pepe were more prepared to play a good game.
However, Ramos did start for the return fixture in Manchester. Karim Benzema’s 10th minute opener was nullified by Sergio Agüero’s strike in the 73rd minute, as Roberto Mancini’s men shared the points with Real Madrid. The draw meant little for Manchester City, however, for they crashed out of the group stage placed bottom of Group D, while Real Madrid advanced to the Round-of-16 behind group winners Borussia Dortmund.
Even without playing in that first game vs. the Blues, Ramos still managed to capture the headlines. Eight years later, the scenario is the same. Sergio Ramos will not play against Manchester City in Real Madrid’s biggest game of the season due to the suspension he picked up in the first leg.
The fault in Manuel Pellegrini’s stars
When Manuel Pellegrini took charge of Real Madrid in 2009, it was touted as the start of a new era. Florentino Pérez had just won back the Presidency of Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaká, and Karim Benzema had just arrived at the Santiago Bernabéu. The foundation of the post-2008 Real Madrid era was laid in that season. Though Florentino has modified his ways of doing business over the last eleven years, his search for excellence has never really altered.
However, the start of his new project was inauspicious. Even after assembling a galactic squad, Real Madrid ended the season trophyless. Out of the many painful events of that season, the worst was missing out on the Champions League final at the Santiago Bernabéu. Pellegrini was consequently sacked but he would soon return to Spanish football with Málaga. That Isco-led side would later crash out of the 2013 Champions League at the hands of Real Madrid’s eventual conquerers — Borussia Dortmund. This prevented a meeting between Real Madrid and their former manager, but only temporarily.
Three years later, Manuel Pellegrini’s Manchester City made it all the way to the Semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League to face Los Blancos. Manchester City had defeated PSG during the Quarter-Finals while Real Madrid had come into the semi-finals off the back of Cristiano Ronaldo’s heroics against Wolfsburg.
Despite the star-studded lineups, the tie was a rather drab affair. Though both teams took a combined 37 shots over the two legs, the only scored goal came from Fernando finding the back of his own net. However, Real Madrid advertises this goal as one of Gareth Bale’s career highlights at the Spanish Capital. The Welshman’s right-footed shot took the slightest of deflections from the Brazilian midfielder and that was enough to send Real Madrid to their second final in three years.
Cristiano Ronaldo didn’t play the first leg due to an injury and had a subdued second leg at the Santiago Bernabéu. Nevertheless, he scored the winning penalty in the final shoot-out against Atlético in Milan.
In 2016, Real Madrid were on the verge of losing out on a major trophy for the second consecutive season. When Zidane took charge of the mess that Rafael Benítez had left behind, there were not many people who thought they were going to win the Champions League. Defeating Pellegrini’s Manchester City was an important moment en route to Milan and en route to Real Madrid’s redemption. That redemption later molded into a three-year long dynasty in Europe.
A date with destiny
Real Madrid’s most recent meeting with Manchester City was an emotional nightmare for Real Madrid fans. Pep Guardiola tried his best to play mind games and make Real Madrid untouchable favorites before the game, but, in reality, he pulled a rabbit out of his tactical hat that gave him the crucial advantage of two away goals. Real Madrid went into the game without Eden Hazard but his replacement, Vinícius Jr., almost won the game for his team. His sneaky assist to Isco allowed Real Madrid to go up 1-0 at the Santiago Bernabéu, causing the stands to literally buzz in celebration.
It was going all too well for Real Madrid until reality hit them hard on the 78th minute. A defensive lapse allowed Gabriel Jesus to execute poacher’s a finish with his head. Jesus had played most of the game on the left flank, but he was at the right place at the right time in the box when he needed to be. A red card for Sergio Ramos left Real Madrid in complete disarray as they handed the first leg to City as Kevin De Bruyne calmly placed his penalty past Thibaut Courtois.
This was a significant moment in the tie. Real Madrid conceded two away goals against the best attacking side in European football today. They also lost their captain for the second leg. This was a catastrophe, with Zinedine Zidane taking fire for not starting Toni Kroos. It was later speculated that Zidane made his decision based on an injury precaution but, regardless of the motive, the absence of the German allowed Manchester City’s midfielders to take complete control of the game in the final 20-25 minutes.
Everything we talked about in this column is in the past. Real Madrid have had euphoric and not so euphoric moments during their limited number of matches against Manchester City. If one tries really hard, the past can be overlooked or even temporarily forgotten but there is no way to erase what hasn’t yet arrived. Real Madrid cannot deny the magnitude of the second leg against Manchester City. Their European journey depends on what they are prepared to put on the line this Friday. It is the fans’ sincere wish that Real Madrid will leave everything out on the field in the Etihad to ensure progression into the Quarter-Finals. The rest is in the hands of destiny.