From the top of its fourteen continental crowns, Real Madrid, reigning European champion, is a height, for the moment, Manchester City, with an almost virgin record on the European scene but which is impatient to overthrow the hierarchy in semi -final first leg of the Champions League on Tuesday (9:00 p.m.) at the Bernabéu.
Will the self-proclaimed “Kings of Europe” abdicate? The recipe is ancestral, the coach experienced and despite aging players, Real Madrid is still there.
Fresh from a twentieth crowning in the King’s Cup, gleaned on Saturday in Seville against Osasuna (2-1), Carlo Ancelotti’s men are approaching this European clash with newfound confidence after a month of April in the form of a rollercoaster.
It was a double from Rodrygo (2nd, 70th) that allowed Real to lift the trophy: the young Brazilian regained his finishing qualities at the best of times … to the great despair of the Citizens.
Last year, already in the semi-finals of the Champions League, Rodrygo had been the nightmare of the Mancunians.
The dolphin dreams of a throne
After having limited the damage to the Etihad stadium in the first leg (4-3), the people of Madrid had snatched the extension at home on the return thanks to an express double (90th, 90th + 1) bearing the claw of the winger of 22, then dashed the last hopes of Pep Guardiola and the Skyblues with a penalty converted by Karim Benzema in the 95th.
But this year, the balance of power is not the same.
The Ballon d’Or 2022, although author of an honorable year (29 goals in 38 matches in all competitions), has been hampered by repeated physical glitches. He is no longer, at 35, as decisive as at 34, when he carried all of Real on his shoulders during a memorable European campaign.
Above all, the Merengues, who receive in the first leg and who will travel to Manchester on May 17, will no longer be able to count on the irrational advantage brought by the boiling Bernabéu from the return matches of last season.
On Monday, City’s Spanish midfielder Rodri spoke of ‘revenge’, but Guardiola denied that view. “We learned the lesson. The lesson is that we do not come for revenge. We come to seize this new opportunity”, assured the Catalan brain of Citizen.
And this year, Guardiola and his family are presenting a new trump card: Erling Haaland.
The Norwegian colossus, courted by Real Madrid before his signing in England last summer, is, at 22, on time to achieve a historic season, leading the dance in the ranking of the top scorers in the Champions League (12 goals) .
“Haaland, it’s obvious that he is different. He has scored 51 goals this season… So the Guardiola – Haaland relationship, I have the impression it hasn’t worked too badly so far” , quipped Toni Kroos on Monday.
And Real will undoubtedly have the greatest difficulty in muzzling him without his best defender, Eder Militao, suspended.
With his cyborg, City seems better equipped than ever to conquer the only trophy that is denied to him.
Since the arrival of Pep Guardiola in 2016, European disappointments have multiplied and the Catalan coach has often been singled out for his tactical experiments which have turned against him.
The quarter-final lost 3-5-2 in 2020 against Lyon (3-1), a year when the Covid-19 pandemic had limited the last rounds to knockout matches, or even the final against Chelsea the next year, started without a defensive midfielder, and lost (1-0), were the most bitter failures.
The Catalan, back at the Bernabéu to face his pet peeve, has never stopped innovating.
The repositioning of John Stones, the integration of Jack Grealish and Haaland: so many challenges that he successfully met in view of the titles collected in England, where City is aiming for a fourth national title in five years.
But he knows that if he does not win the C1, his passage will leave a taste of unfinished business.