Last month, Zinedine Zidane’s side, Real Madrid, were crowned the champions of La Liga, and deservedly so.
Los Blancos did not score an abundance of goals in the 2019-20 La Liga campaign, but they always managed to produce something extraordinary when the chips were down.
Their astonishing defensive record — 25 goals conceded in 38 games — turned out to be the deciding factor, as no other team in the league managed to match their numbers. Not even Atletico Madrid.
At Real Madrid, victory laps and title-winning celebrations do not last as long. There is always something bigger to win, some grander milestone to reach.
Real Madrid face an uphill task against Manchester City
Any football fan knows just how prolific Real Madrid can be in Europe; their 13 titles prove just far ahead they are of the curve. Their indomitable spirit, a plethora of world-beating superstars, and the underrated brilliance of Zinedine Zidane — it is always foolish to write Real Madrid off.
However, this time, against a wounded Manchester City, they might not be able to have their way.
Yes, Real Madrid are running on the pure rush of winning their 34th La Liga title. However, it still might fall short in front of City’s desire to bag their only major trophy of the season — their first Champions League.
Their coach, Pep Guardiola, has not been able to win the coveted ‘Big Ol’ Years’ since leaving Barcelona and would do everything in his power not to squander the advantage they have.
The 2-1 defeat at the Santiago Bernabeu saw Real Madrid surrender their 1-0 advantage in the final 15 minutes of the tie. The Whites were not particularly awful on the night — not bad enough to guarantee Manchester City a second-leg victory.
But without their captain, Sergio Ramos — who saw red in the final minutes of the first-leg defeat — it is surely going to be an uphill climb. Without their number 4, Real Madrid have only won one and lost five of their last six Champions League games.
Historically, too, Real Madrid are in a bit of a pickle. Los Merengues have never turned around a Champions League knockout time after losing the first leg at the Santiago Bernabeu.
The defeats came against Bayern Munich (2000-01), Arsenal (2005-06), Liverpool (2008-09) and Barcelona (2010-11).
Real Madrid’s astute defence has been their most prominent weapon this season. However, they cannot afford to minimise risks on Friday against City. Real Madrid need at least a 2-1 win to push the game into extra time, while 2-0 or 3-2 wins would earn them a place in the quarter-finals.
This requirement could very easily translate into more space for Manchester City — who have scored 102 goals this season — to exploit. Sergio Aguero has been ruled out of the tie, but City have enough firepower to extort a Ramos-less Los Blancos.
Karim Benzema has been the only Real Madrid forward who has stepped up to the plate quite consistently. Vinicius Jr also has the explosive factor, but he usually ends up bottling it in the final third.
Star winger, Eden Hazard, is one of the very few stars who can make or break a match, and he would have been Real Madrid’s ace had he not suffered such devastating injuries.
It is impractical to expect Hazard to drop his best performance of the season against the most free-flowing team in the world — something, not even the staunchest Madridistas would dare to dream.
We know Real Madrid are capable of scoring from set-pieces. We know they have the quality to pop up with a goal in a matter of seconds. Yet, despite all their qualities, Real Madrid would start Friday’s Champions League Round of 16 tie as the underdog.
Zinedine Zidane has the golden opportunity to pull one over Pep Guardiola at the end of the week, but the Frenchman would have to do something really extraordinary to keep the Catalan from seizing the bragging rights and a place in the final eight of the Champions League.