Last season’s record breaking Premier League winners finished the year in third place. Manchester City sit 14 points off of the leaders, having already lost more games this season than they did in the year prior. With the league firmly lost, a Champions League trophy would be one of the better consolations. Real Madrid, however, ended their year just two points off Barcelona. The Cristiano Ronaldo chapter appears to have finally ended and Zinedine Zidane can begin working towards a prosperous future. In their competition, Madrid face a team that will leave everything on the field.
Shortly after his arrival as a senior coach in 2008, the only notable blemish Pep Guardiola incurred was a 1–0 defeat to Numancia in his first La Liga game. After this uncharacteristically duff start, his ascension to the top of the managerial mountain continued until a year long sabbatical in 2012. After a year away, Guardiola returned to management, taking over from the European Treble winning Bayern Munich. This appointment started several key discussions: Firstly, what was Guardiola going to do to improve something that was as close to perfect as that Bayern team was? And secondly, could he replicate the success he enjoyed at Barcelona without the help of Messi?
Domestically, no one came close to Bayern and the gulf between them and their competitors grew larger and larger. But they were expected to walk away with the league every season; Guardiola’s successor, Carlo Ancelotti, famously stated that they could win the league with their hands in their pockets. The target for Pep and co. became to build a European dynasty.
Guardiola’s time at Bayern was met with mixed reviews. Three consecutive league titles, the overall improvement of key players but it was the consecutive semi-final knock-outs to Spanish opposition that remain his legacy for many fans. In failing to build upon or even sustain the performance of Jupp Heynckes’s “final” season at Bayern, questions were raised as to whether Guardiola was deserving of the praise he received at Barcelona or whether he simply got lucky with the players he had. “He can’t do it without Messi.”
In his fourth season at Manchester City, the argument of “Fraudiola” is more rife than ever. Undoubtedly a quality manager and tactician with a CV that most could only wish for, he is starting to run into walls. Key players such as Fernandinho and recent acquisition Rodri have both found themselves filling in as makeshift centre-backs, in a defensive line that has had more than £350 million poured into it since Pep arrived in Manchester. As the pivot is the focal point of Guardiola‘s belief, playing his two preferred pivots as cover for the injured Laporte and Stones raises eyebrows. Should a defence as expensive as Manchester City’s not have to resort to players “filling in”. Commendable though it may be to have coached these midfielders to a level where they can effectively play as defenders, Guardiola and City have managed to garner a reputation of throwing a seemingly infinite pool of money at players until it works. Is that commendable or is it simply profligate? Liverpool, for example, spent £75 million — at the time, a world record price for a defender — on Virgil Van Dijk and have become nearly invincible. One has to wonder what the situation would be had Manchester City secured the Dutchman’s signature and not Liverpool.
And it is Liverpool who have run away with the league, ironically in typical Guardiola fashion. As 2020 started, a 14 point gap separated the two powerhouses (but with Leicester City sandwiched between). With seemingly no way back to the top spot, Pep Guardiola’s focus now turns to the Champions League. Back to back Premier League trophies with a record breaking 100 point season in 2018/19 confirmed his status as a crucial facet of the new Man City. He would be forgiven if his attentions now focused solely on the trophy he won almost effortlessly in his first senior year in management. Drawing what was seen as the most simple group, City still managed to make hard work of Atalanta and Shakhtar Dontesk, albeit playing in a period blighted by injuries. It remains to be seen whether they have simply coasted through the group stage, opting to wait for the first real challenge in Europe. And what better challenger for their missing trophy than the record holders, Real Madrid.
In the second season post-Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid are starting to look more and more like a team not built to facilitate one player. Marquee signings are still present, but it is not The Cristiano Show anymore. Instead, his departure and steadying of the ship has allowed the talent to be displayed across the field. Karim Benzema, who used to simply be the side-kick is now in the form of his life, supported by a versatile attack featuring Isco, Gareth Bale, Vinicius Junior, Rodrygo Goes and, of course, Eden Hazard; better late than never… Sort of.
Hazard has been linked with a move to Real Madrid for the best part of five years. Former Madrid and Hazard manager José Mourinho once stated that if Real Madrid want Eden Hazard, it will cost them ‘£100 million for each leg.’ Four years on, Madrid splashed “just” £100 million for Hazard’s services and, at 29 years old, one has to wonder whether they needed to.
In 13 games in his first six months, Hazard has tallied one goal and four assists. Wearing the iconic number 7, his purchase at this point looks to be more evident of a stubbornness from Zinedine Zidane than it is a footballing masterstroke. While he tore through defenders at Chelsea, he is yet to firmly establish himself as Madrid’s new number 7, following in the footsteps of Ronaldo, Raul and Mariano Diaz (who is of course something of an exception here). It is in this stubbornness that Zidane may become Madrid’s undoing. £100 million for a winger in his late 20s is an unusual move and one that is yet to pay off. Much in the same way that Zidane’s infatuation with Paul Pogba has resulted in countless rumours, is Pogba a player that Real Madrid need? Was Hazard a player that Real Madrid needed?
To say that this team relied on Cristiano Ronaldo for 10 years is perhaps unfair to the other players. Replacing him was always going to be difficult but this is not the only position that needed a sense of transition. Sergio Ramos, for example, is a shining example of a “big game player” whose absence was sorely noted at the close of last season’s La Liga campaign; his eventual departure will be a huge blow unless Éder Militão steps up to the plate. Marcelo was a regular in the starting 11 for nearly 14 years now until Santiago Solari regularly benched him in favour of Sergio Reguilón. Maybe the most difficult task facing Madrid right now is rebuilding their midfield. Thankfully for them, all is not lost. The perfectly balanced trio, comprising the passing mastery of Toni Kroos, the game awareness of Luka Modric and the red-card-proof Casemiro, is starting to make way for Federico Valverde and he is not missing a step. Able to make a pass like Kroos, surge forward like Modric and defend with everything he has like Casemiro, Valverde has been one of the brighter sparks of the squad this season. But he is something of an anomaly.
Their period of European dominion maybe coming to a close and what this group has achieved in the past 6 years is unlikely to be replicated again any time soon. But that isn’t to say that it would never happen. For each position occupied by a current Real Madrid superstar, there is a young talent ready to take over as soon as they get their chance… The only thing in their way appears to be the manager.
The highly rated Éder Militão has not been called upon as much this season as Reguilón was last year. Reguilón, despite impressing in every performance he gave, is now on loan at Sevilla, not quite fitting what Zidane was looking for in a full-back. Marcos Llorente — a young defensive midfielder — seemed like a natural successor to Casemiro but was sold to city rivals Atletico Madrid. Luka Jovic, although green, was regularly on the score sheet for Eintracht Frankfurt — he has only played 90 minutes on one occasion this season. Although he is getting results and is only behind Barcelona on goal difference in La Liga, Zidane can only keep this going for so long. The sale of Llorente, for example, received a mixed ovation. While some claimed that a 24 year old who had predominantly only featured on the bench for Madrid was not a huge loss, others lamented selling an academy product to a rival. Comments like ‘I hope Zidane knows what he’s doing’ became commonplace on forums. All this begs the question, does Zidane know what he is doing or was his success lucky. By the grace of God, he was given a team that had Ronaldo, Ramos, Marcelo, that midfield…
With three consecutive Champions League trophies under his belt, maybe he does know what he’s doing… but even if he didn’t, would anyone tell him otherwise? Now is the time for him to show that those titles weren’t just a result of the incredibly gifted squad but the manager behind it. Zinedine Zidane does know what he’s doing.
In Real Madrid vs Manchester City, you have two very different approaches but with the same battle going on beneath. It is not quite El Classico but it is as close as it gets. Pep Guardiola, master tactician, will be vying for the trophy that has eluded him for so long. Zidane will be looking to show that he fully deserves to be at the table.
Even though neither are playing, this game is somehow still Messi vs Ronaldo.