Manchester City face the toughest test of their season so far as Pep Guardiola prepares to take on the Champions League holders Real Madrid in their semi-final first leg on Tuesday. City tasted defeat on their last visit to the Santiago Bernabeu, losing 3-1 on the night in a 6-5 aggregate defeat and Guardiola will be hoping his in-form side can right some wrongs from last season’s competition to give themselves a chance of reaching the final.
City thrashed Bundesliga outfit RB Leipzig thanks to Erling Haaland’s incredible goalscoring exploits and brushed aside German giants Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals to reach the last four for the third consecutive season.
But after suffering that painful defeat in the Spanish capital, Guardiola knows he must get his team selection spot on to exact revenge on Los Blancos and edge closer to ending his 12-year wait for a third Champions League crown as a manager.
Having chosen to rest several of his players in the 2-1 win over Leeds United on Saturday, the Catalan will have nearly a whole squad of fit and firing stars to choose from. Express Sport examines what his City team could look like as they kick off against Real Madrid.
Goalkeeper – Ederson
The last clean sheet the Brazilian kept was the 3-0 success against Bayern at the Etihad Stadium back in March, and City’s backline has leaked some avoidable goals since then. But even a bold coach as Guardiola is would not even consider dropping his trusted No 1 for such a crucial game.
There will be some concerns that the best shot-stopper is playing in the white of Madrid, although Ederson’s skills on the ball will be crucial in allowing City to build from the back.
In case of an injury in the lead-up to the game, 30-year-old Stefan Ortega kept a clean sheet in the 3-0 win over West Ham – his first league appearance of the season – so City remain in safe hands regardless.
Defenders – Kyle Walker, Ruben Dias, Manuel Akanji
A year ago, an injury of Nathan Ake would have been insignificant for Guardiola in preparing for a game of this magnitude. But it is undeniable that the loss of the Dutchman will affect City’s effectiveness in their new 3-2-4-1 shape.
The absence of a natural left-footer could give the Premier League champions some difficulty in playing out from the back. However, Akanji has proved to be a solid deputy anywhere across the backline and may be preferred to Aymeric Laporte.
Rico Lewis has been superb hybrid right-back and centre midfield role of late, but the youngster’s inexperience compared to Walker means the 32-year-old will surely earn a start, given his ability to match the dangerous Vinicius Junior for pace too.
Midfielders – John Stones, Rodri
A player with Rodri’s leadership and Stones comfort in playing the hybrid role means Guardiola can relax in deploying the pair as deep-lying midfielders to set the tempo.
Lewis has been effective in the role and offers a more nimble presence against the likes of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Federico Valverde. But there is no replacement for experience, with Rodri and Stones both players who have been there and won several trophies under Guardiola – they have the know-how for the big occasion.
It will be a big test for Stones in carrying the ball through the congested areas in the middle, but the England international is in fine form and will surely earn a recall. Ilkay Gundogan, fresh off scoring a double against Leeds, may settle for the bench after receiving a reprimand from Guardiola for his missed penalty.
Attackers – Riyad Mahrez, Bernardo Silva, Kevin de Bruyne, Jack Grealish, Erling Haaland
Madrid may feel they have the edge with Vinicius, Karim Benzema and Rodrygo, but City’s frontline has been firing on all cylinders of late with Haaland in devastating form. Likewise, De Bruyne looked at home in joining the Norwegian in a two-man attack against Arsenal and it would not be a surprise to see the same tactic used against Madrid.
The energy of Julian Alvarez could be critical in the latter stages of the game if the visitors require a goal and Guardiola may prefer to keep him as an ace in his pocket, with Bernardo Silva joining De Bruyne in doing the leg work in between the two boxes.
And with 12 goals already in the competition making it 51 in all competitions, Haaland will be hoping to add to his tally in Spain as the lone striker.
Man City possible starting lineup (3-2-4-1): Ederson; Walker, Dias, Akanji; Stones, Rodri; Bernardo, De Bruyne, Grealish; Haaland.