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‘Rafail’ Varane’s lapses, Pep Guardiola’s tactics script Real Madrid’s European exit

Real Madrid were shown the door by a Pep Guardiola-led team in the UEFA Champions League last-16 as Manchester City won 2-1 (4-2 on aggregate) against the 13-time champions.

Written by Shashank Nair | Updated: August 9, 2020 9:02:04 am
Raphael Varane in action against Phil Foden. (Source: Reuters)

Rafael Varane, one of Europe’s best defenders on the ball, was harried and hassled into making two errors by Manchester City’s front three as 13-time UCL champions Real Madrid were shown the door by a Pep Guardiola-led team that did what the Spaniard advocates best in a 2-1 (Agg: 4-2) win over Zinedine Zidane’s Los Blancos at the City of Manchester Stadium on Friday.

Stripped off the ball once in his own box and then attempting a loose header back to his goalkeeper was the undoing of the French World Cup-winning defender in a match where Madrid were already trailing by a goal and couldn’t afford to concede any more. A close look at the Citizen’s tactics, on the other hand, shows just how hard it was for Madrid to shut shop on the road.

Camping in the other half

While domestic success has come for Manchester City with ease in the past few years, their real aspirations have always been the Champions League. And on Friday night, those aspirations may have received a shot in the arm, especially in the manner they nullified Real Madrid’s threat.

Guardiola chose to go with a front three of Gabriel Jesus, Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling, with Foden playing as a false nine. With the grounds of a high press laid amid a front three of fast players who could close down the opponents quickly and extinguish any hopes of Madrid building from the back, the Citizens went to work. By the end of the game, the team had made 78 successful tackles, interceptions and ball recoveries – 28 of which came in Madrid’s half. Madrid on the other hand, made 16 successful challenges in the City half, according to a report on the BBC website. In a game dictated by energy and ball recovery, the Citizens clearly ruled the roost.

Guardiola adopts the false nine

When City’s line-up came out, the immediate assumption would have been that Phil Foden would play on the right and Jesus would be the striker. But Guardiola threw a surprise in the tracks of Madrid, opting for his young English attacking midfielder to play as a false nine.

Foden’s job was to provide pace and energy and disrupt a Madrid defensive line-up missing the talismanic Sergio Ramos. In the 67 minutes Foden played, he ran 9 km when his team averaged 7 km. His energy and willingness to close down players with the ball helped in Madrid making mistakes at vulnerable spots on the pitch. The first goal may have resulted from the ball being stolen by Jesus off of Varane but the Frenchman had the ball at the time because Foden was guarding Madrid’s pivot. Stuck choosing between a rock and a hard place, Varane took too long to make a decision and let City score a vital goal at home to strengthen their hand on a quarter-final spot.

Walker stops Hazard

Eden Hazard in action at the Etihad Stadium. (Source: Reuters)

What Kyle Walker brings to a Manchester City team that oozes quality is pace on the flanks. Guardiola’s team is a lot of things, but defensively they are easily exploitable especially when pressure is applied to them. In order to keep the team compact at the back, Walker chose to stay behind for most of the game.

He had the most touches among all players on the field with 95, but only three of them came in the opposition half, a rarity for the England international. He was tasked with man-marking Eden Hazard out of the game and while Madrid as a whole did create chances, most of them came with Karim Benzema being the end product. Benzema scored one but failed to get any help from teammates when it came to scoring goals in a game that required it. An OptaJoe statistic aptly described the dichotomy of Manchester City in the UCL: “In their 76th Champions League match, Man City have scored their 150th and conceded their 100th goal in the competition, the fastest to both figures for any English side in the competition.”

Sterling performance

After scoring the opener and helping his team beat a legitimate contender for the UCL this season, Raheem Sterling may finally be on the path to exorcising the ghost of last season’s UCL game. In the BT Studio, former England international Gary Lineker revealed that Sterling had asked the corporation to provide the video of City’s two-legged loss to Tottenham.

“I don’t know whether I’m supposed to share this or it’s supposed to be a secret from Raheem, but he actually got in touch with BT to ask for the video of last season’s game against Tottenham Hotspur that they lost,” Lineker said. He then added, “Not just to see his performance but he wanted to get that feeling back of losing and what it meant, which just shows you how much thought goes into his game. He wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again,” said Lineker in the post-match show.

For a club that is still young in relative terms when it comes to European competition, beating a team that has recently won three Champions Leagues, is exactly the kind of experience that no training can provide and makes Guardiola’s team a virtual favourite in this race to the top. They next face a Lyon team that overcame Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus over two legs, in the quarter-finals.

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