Manchester City remind Real that time flies when you’ve had fun

SERGIO RAMOS, one of the figureheads of the modern Real Madrid, will sit out the second leg of the UEFA Champions League round of 16 tie with Manchester City. At 33, you never know if it will be the last Champions League campaign for the “Svengali of white-shirted bastardism”, to quote a leading UK journalist reporting on the 2018 final in which Ramos did his worst to ensure Mo Salah left the field early enough to blunt Liverpool’s attack.

Ramos’ departure coincided with the penalty that gave Manchester City a 2-1 win in the Bernabéu Stadium, a result that gave Pep Guardiola’s team an excellent chance of making the last eight of the competition. It may also have signalled the end of the Real Madrid team that won four Champions League titles in a five-year period that ended in 2018.

Seven players that started against City kicked-off Real’s last UCL final in 2018 and not one had less than three winners’ medals in his trophy cabinet. In short, this was a team that knew how to negotiate the Champions League and its knockout stage, but there was one important, influential name missing from the club’s recent glorious run – Cristiano Ronaldo. Without CR7, Real lack star quality – particularly in the absence of injured big-money signing Eden Hazard – and are painfully short on self-belief. For this current squad, the future is clearly behind them.

Downturn

There have been signs of decline for more than a year now. In 2018-19, Real Madrid lost 12 La Liga games, the highest number of losses since 1998-99. The most defeats suffered by any Real side in a season is 13 (1973-74). With Cristiano Ronaldo gone, Real’s goal tally suffered and dropped from 94 to 63, the worst haul since 2000. Prior to 2018-19, Real had netted over 100 league goals in each of the previous eight campaigns.

Three managers in one season in 2018-19 was an indication that all was not well in Chamartín and the reappointment of Zinedine Zidane a hint of some desperation in the air. Real spent heavily in the summer of 2019, but what did they get for their € 360 million? There was no apparent replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo for the second successive close season, although Hazard was seen as the next marque signing. Unfortunately, the former Chelsea man has scored once in 15 games and is likely to be sidelined for the rest of the season. It’s not healthy to become a forgotten man at a club like Real Madrid.

Too many players in key positions are now over 30 and some may need to start moving on – Ramos (33), Luka Modrić (34), Toni Kroos (30), Marcelo (31), Gareth Bale (30) and Karim Benzema (32).

Real went into the first leg with Manchester City on the back of a 1-0 defeat against Levante. One point from two league games handed the initiative to Barcelona in the title race and on top of that, Zidane’s men were knocked out of the Copa del Rey at home by Real Sociedad. Meeting City, a team that may be in the last chance saloon given they face a possible two-year European ban from the end of 2019-20, was not the ideal pairing in the last 16. With the Premier League title now out of reach, City and Guardiola need success in the Champions League to cement their golden spell under Pep and his pay-masters. He hasn’t won the imposing big-eared trophy since 2011.

Character

A strategic 2-1 win in the Bernabéu showed Spain that one of their own had tricks up his sleeve and how sweet it must have been for a Barca man to win in the capital. Guardiola surprisingly left-out Raheem Sterling, Fernandinho and Sergio Agüero from the starting line-up and used Kevin De Bruyne and Bernando Silva in central attacking roles. The way City came back from a goal down not only endorsed the coach’s tactical gamble, it also showed the character of his team.

This is the second season running that Real have received a reminder that old father time can be a vicious and unforgiving visitor to your stadium if you have no succession plans. Last year, it was Ajax’s young blond braves that stunned the holders with a 4-1 win that announced the beginning of the end. Now City have made them sit up and acknowledge that the empire really has come to a close.

It couldn’t have come at a worse time. Both Real and City have a vital week or two that will shape their season. Real welcome (if that’s the right word) Barcelona to the Bernabéu for the second Clásico , knowing full well that another defeat may spell the end of their league title bid. Not that Barca are the force of old, they have, more than most, benefitted from Real’s malaise and even Lionel Messi has said his club are not strong enough to win the Champions League this year.

Meanwhile, City have the EFL Cup final at Wembley against Aston Villa and then meet Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup fifth round. By the time Real and City meet again at the Etihad, the season may look very different.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA

PSG, Manchester City and the Champions League – the time of new money might be now

THE UEFA Champions League is due a new winner and this season, clubs like Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City will be hoping to join the elite band of European champions. The massive investments made in both clubs have been designed to lift the continent’s biggest club prize, but neither club has come close to winning the competition. However, in a season when clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich are looking like they are on the brink of transition, PSG and City could finally seize the opportunity.

The Champions League last 16 draw paired PSG and City with Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid respectively. These are both tough ties, but there are no easy routes to the final. In fact, this season, for the first time, the last 16 is comprised entirely from the so-called “big five” European leagues. This underlines the polarisation of European football – in 2015-16, there were 10 different leagues represented in the knockout stages of the competition.

Furthermore, the roll-call  emphasises the power in Europe unequivocally belongs to its richest clubs. Using Deloitte’s Football Money League as a guide, 11 of the Champions League’s 16 clubs are in the top 13 in Deloitte’s study. Another two are in the top 30 – only Leipzig, Atalanta and Valencia do not make the list. Notable absentees from the UCL are Arsenal, Manchester United and Inter Milan.

It’s not always the best team in Europe that wins the Champions League and occasionally, the honour can fall to a team that just gets it right and applies great focus to the task. Chelsea in 2012 were a classic case – they won the title with their least effective line-up in the first phase of the Abramovich era. Winning on all fronts takes a very special team, hence the triple crown of UCL with a domestic double is a rare achievement. The last great team to win the UCL was, arguably, Guardiola’s Barcelona in 2011, who outplayed Manchester United, moving their manager Sir Alex Ferguson to claim Barca were the best team he had come up against in 40 years.

Appetite

Manchester City, in the past two seasons, have been formidable in the Premier League, but they’ve yet to be compared to Barca 2011 or the marvellous Brazilians of 1970. This season has demonstrated City are not as invincible as people thought. They are beatable and they’ve lost four times in 17 league games. Their European form has been good, with  four wins from six group games and 16 goals scored, four conceded. The past two seasons, ironically, have seen them lose to Premier League teams in the knockout phase, strange given their dominance at home.

City have yet to beat a major contender when it truly matters – between 2013-14 and 2015-16, they were beaten by Barcelona twice in the round of 16 and Real Madrid once in the semi-final. Since then, they have been eliminated by teams they should probably have beaten over two legs – Monaco, Liverpool and Tottenham. Admittedly, in the past two years, they have been fighting on multiple fronts, suggesting they may have to sacrifice something or realign their priorities in order to win the Champions League.

There’s no doubt City still have the players to perform in the latter rounds of the competition and a tie with Real Madrid will test their appetite. This is a clash between the club that is intimately linked with the competition and the manager who once managed their fiercest rivals and also won two Champions League titles in the process but it has been more than eight years since Guardiola last got his hands on the “cup with the big ears”.

Real Madrid are faring better this season in their second year since Cristiano Ronaldo departed. They’ve lost just once and are second in the La Liga table, despite constant rumours about the future of coach Zinedine Zidane and Welsh international Gareth Bale. As ever, Real is a hornets’ nest of intrigue and there’s an assumption a rebuilding process will gather momentum in January as some players are getting long in the tooth, but under whose management?

The tie, should City get through, will rubber-stamp their credentials as Champions League contenders. The Madrid-biased Marca newspaper has already thrown down the gauntlet for Guardiola by claiming he despises the UCL because he cannot win it. Moreover, the publication reminds City they have no European pedigree.

Recent comments by Guardiola have been interpreted as an admission that the all-conquering City team has reached something of a peak. His strange response to the derby defeat against United, claiming City may no longer be able to compete with the likes of Liverpool, Barcelona and Real Madrid, seemed like a caveat or a signal that an era might be drawing to a close. If Guardiola leaves the club without winning the UCL, will it be an unfulfilled project? The Real Madrid tie will provide some answers.

Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior of Paris Saint-Germain

Era-defining

While people may play down the importance of the Champions League, the vast outlay of cash is not just to secure domestic honours for City, and indeed Paris Saint-Germain. Interestingly, if you consider that City, PSG and Chelsea represent the age of inflated investment, only Chelsea have managed to win European prizes, one Champions League and two Europa Leagues. No matter how much money is thrown at buying success, the traditional giants of the game still pick up the top prize. Since 2003-04,  Real and Barca have won four each, Liverpool two and Milan, Inter, Manchester United and Bayern Munich have all won one apiece.

PSG’s complete domination of French football has been almost embarrassing and the sceptics will never give them total recognition because their budget swamps the entire league. Even more so than Manchester City, PSG need European success to rubber-stamp their position amongst the crème de la crème.

PSG finished top in a group that included Real Madrid and beat them 3-0 in Paris. The ongoing debate over Neymar’s fuure – will, won’t he? – has clouded the season a little for the French champions, but the Brazilian superstar has said, “why would I want to leave?”.

Neymar strategically explained that his desire for a move was a reflection of an injury-riddled period at the club. “I am happy in Paris,” he told France Football. “This season, the objective is the Champions League.”

PSG have more options up front these days, with Mauro Icardi joining the club on loan from Inter Milan, a prudent insurance move should Neymar’s PR script prove to be the prelude to a lucrative move. Icardi has not only scored five times in the Champions League, he has 13 overall, two behind Kylian Mbappé. Edinson Cavani, who is now 32, is currently out of favour, but the Uruguayan international has almost 200 goals in less than 300 games for PSG – not a bad fellow to have in reserve.

There’s a lot riding on PSG’s last 16 clash with Borussia Dortmund. A defeat could spell the end of Thomas Tuchel’s time at PSG, if past failures are an indicator. This would surely add to the frustrations of the club’s owners, who crave UCL success. There have been reports of Qatar being interested in another club and that they were contemplating reducing their influence on PSG. Champions League success could quell that sentiment.

This then could be the year when new money finally takes hold of the Champions League. It may be the last chance the current cast gets to reward their middle-eastern owners, but it won’t be the end of the project, the deck chairs will be rearranged, more money will be spent, the dial of intensity will be turned up. The Champions League, after all, has become football’s Holy Grail.

The GOTP tip for the last eight: Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City, Valencia, Liverpool,  Bayern Munich, Juventus, Tottenham and Barcelona. Current tip to win the trophy: Manchester City

 

@GameofthePeople

Photos: PA

Real Madrid: Zidane has to stave off the Mourinho threat

THE VULTURES are already circling the Bernabéu stadium after Real Madrid were trounced 3-0 by Paris Saint-Germain in la Ville des Lumières. The body they are eyeing is none other than Zinedine Zidane, three times winner of the UEFA Champions League as coach of Real. So convinced are people that “Zizou” will be on his way soon, they are already preparing for the return of José Mourinho for his second stint in the hottest seat in Spanish football.

Real’s domestic form hasn’t been spectacular, but they are still unbeaten after four rounds of the La Liga programme. It has been an uncomfortable few months for Zidane, even though Real spent € 300 million in the close season. Despite five big name signings, Real’s squad still needs surgery and players like Sergio Ramos, Luka Modrić, Karim Benzema and Marcelo are all over 30. Eden Hazard, Real’s € 100 million acquisition from Chelsea, has only just made his first appearances and against PSG, looked off the pace. Indeed, fans are already asking if Real’s big outlay in the summer has been a waste of money.

There’s no doubt tthe team Zidane largely inherited in his first spell, one that won three consecutive Champions League titles between 2016 and 2018, has long since peaked. Losing Cristiano Ronaldo has been a blow they haven’t recovered from and with the club about to embark on its stadium redevelopment programme, the club’s spending may be restricted for a while.

Real expect instant results and it has not been a good year for the club in terms of performance. They have kept just six clean sheets in 2019 and conceded 49 goals in 35 matches. The PSG display – it was the first time in 578 games that Real did not have a shot on goal – is being called embarrassing. Real will be aware that no team has gone on to win the Champions League after losing their opening game in the competition.

Zidane’s critics suggest that he has had a charmed life in his career, that he has merely been a custodian of a collection of highly skilled autonomous players rather than a coach that guides his team. The side that won the Champions League knew how to negotiate Europe and it had CR7 in its ranks.

It’s an unfortunate time for Zidane to be at the club in some ways. They are at the start of a team rebuilding process and to a certain extent, his return suggested Real had run out of ideas after dispensing with the services of two coaches earlier in 2018-19. Real have won just two of the last 10 league titles, while Barca have been champions seven times. The Champions League compensated for a lack of domestic success – four wins in five seasons – but in 2018-19, Ajax showed that an era of European dominance was coming to an end. With Barca still likely to top La Liga, where does that leave Real?

Real president Florentino Peréz has said that Barca are the best team in the league, an admission that could have been an early warning signal that he won’t entertain mediocrity. Galatasaray and Bruges are next and while they may present tough away challenges, it will still be a surprise if Real don’t go through. If Real do crash out of the Champions League at the group stage, however, the financial implications and the ignominy won’t be tolerated.

This is where Mourinho comes into the equation. He’s been operating as an awkward-looking pundit on TV but he’s apparently surprised he’s still out of the management game. Mourinho had a win rate of 71.9% when he was with Real between 2010 and 2013, but he still had to play second string to Barca. Nevertheless, he has recently, and strategically, described his time with the club as “the best memory of my career, it was fantastic”.

According to media reports, Peréz believes Mourinho is the man to revitalise Real and bring some discipline to the dressing room. But the dressing room may not be so enthused. Hazard has said he wants to work with Mourinho again, but other influential figures, such as Sergio Ramos, may not be so welcoming.

If not Mourinho, then who might Real lure to the Bernabéu? Names like Joachim Low, Max Allegri and Mauricio Pochettino have been mentioned as possible replacements, but Zidane may yet turn things around if he’s allowed to. With Real’s track record, it seems more likely that Peréz will make another change, but why have another unimaginative return match? Mourinho 2019 is not Mourinho 2010. Perhaps it should be time for something different, a new approach, a new man, a new code. It might not win the UEFA Champions League this season, but it might bring local success to Real Madrid.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA