Kevin De Bruyne led by example as Manchester City came from behind to claim a deserved win over Real Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League last 16 encounter.
City edged the first half, with Zinedine Zidane’s side seemingly flummoxed by Guardiola’s latest tactical offering, something of a 4-2-4-0 with Gabriel Jesus and Riyad Mahrez down either flank and Bernardo Silva and De Bruyne operating as dual No.10s
However, neither side could find the breakthrough with both goalkeepers, Thibaut Courtois and Ederson, each making a fine stop to deny Jesus and Karim Benzema respectively.
Courtois would make another smart stop to deny Jesus’ angled drive early in the second period, before Algerian winger Mahrez curled wide after a smart counter led by De Bruyne.
Then, after Rodrigo was robbed in midfield by Luka Modric and Kyle Walker missed his opportunity to clear, shrugged aside by teenage Brazilian winger Vinicius Jr, Isco struck, the errors from the City pair gleefully received by the Spaniard, who coolly fired past Ederson.
For a period, Madrid took charge. However, they couldn’t create a real clear-cut opportunity with which to extend their advantage.
And then De Bruyne took over.
First the Belgian charged into the penalty area, held off challenges, pivoted onto his right foot and dropped in a delicious cross from which Jesus headed home. Real Madrid appealed a push on Sergio Ramos, but the goal stood.
Five minutes later, De Bruyne put City ahead, coolly converting from the penalty spot after Dani Carvajal’s needless challenge on Raheem Sterling – brought on at 1-0 down – to put City in front.
He had been the best player on the pitch throughout, carrying the ball and probing, but these two decisive acts merely confirmed as much.
Sergio Ramos saw red shortly after for a foul on Jesus, meaning he won’t be available for the second leg at the Etihad.
That merely added to the mountain Madrid must now climb, as City take a major step towards the last eight.
Here are seven talking points…
1. Guardiola’s Old Trafford special
When the changes to the City starting lineup were confirmed pre-game, with Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero only among the substitutes, it looked pretty self-explanatory.
Brazil No.9 Jesus, fresh from his winner at Leicester , would start centrally, Kevin de Bruyne as the No.10, with Mahrez and Bernardo Silva on either flank.
Instead, Guardiola used the same formation that had flummoxed Manchester United in the opening leg of the Carabao Cup semi-final at Old Trafford, going without a central attacking focal point.
Jesus started wide left, Mahrez right, with Bernardo and De Bruyne playing from central positions either side of Casemiro – somewhat leaving him between a rock and a hard place. It was something akin to a 4-2-4-0 formation and allowed City, largely, to dictate the first period against a sub-par home side.
City couldn’t take advantage when on top – but my word it worked out in the end.
2. More Laporte worries
It is by some considerable distance that Aymeric Laporte is Manchester City’s best defender.
There can be no doubt about it, given the difference in their defence last season compared to this current campaign.
Since his return, he has started three matches. In all, he wasn’t fit enough to play the full 90 minutes, but in all, City kept a clean sheet.
Unfortunately for City, he lasted just 33 minutes before needing to be replaced by Fernandinho, having unfortunately felt a fresh issue.
It’s another blow for Laporte, and for City, who miss the powerful, commanding Frenchman whenever he’s unavailable.
3. Kroos’ absence
Speaking of injuries, conspicuous by his absence from the home side was Toni Kroos.
The World Cup winner was only named as a substitute by Zidane, with Luka Modric coming in to partner Casemiro and Federico Valverde in midfield.
Kroos, 30, has been a key cog in Zidane’s side and remains so, but after failing to finish Madrid’s final session on Tuesday ahead of the game, he was left on the bench as a precaution.
It has to be said that his patient passing and calm manner was missed all night.
4. De Bruyne takes over
What a display!
He’s been considered, by many, to be the best all-round footballer in the Premier League for some time now. But we’ve never really had that real dominant display in Europe’s elite club competition from him.
This was De Bruyne looking around and putting his team on his back. He worked tirelessly without the ball and was full of purpose whenever he had it. His balling out Mendy early doors for a sloppy touch showed how much this meant to him, and throughout he was outstanding.
When City needed him to step up, he did precisely that, driving through challenges, carrying the ball and creating overloads, and, crucially, picking the decisive pass for Jesus’ opener.
And when City won another penalty, having failed from the spot time and again this season, De Bruyne stepped up and nervelessly sent his international teammate the wrong way.
One hell of a night for the Belgian.
5. Guardiola’s faith in Jesus justified
He did everything he was asked to do tonight. And eventually, he made the crucial difference with his equaliser.
Real Madrid really struggled with Jesus throughout, as he kept finding ways to get in behind Carvajal. Twice, fine runs forced fine saves from Courtois.
But after moving up front, following Sterling’s introduction, it was third time lucky, a fine poacher’s header finally beating Courtois and levelling the score.
Additionally, don’t miss out on the defensive work he did throughout, shielding Benjamin Mendy and breaking up attacks.
An all-action display where he justified his inclusion.
6. A first for De Bruyne
On the night where he started as captain, De Bruyne helped himself to his 50th goal for City. He took it with such aplomb that you have to ask why he hasn’t been on them all season.
Also, according to Opta, it was the first time he’s both scored and assisted in the same Champions League game.
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