City’s season has been reignited with a surge in the Champions League and excitement at the Etihad courses with the possibility of a place in the final. They host ten-time European champions Real Madrid tonight and will be confident on the back of recent performances.
Putting a finger on this turning point isn’t as easy as pointing at Kevin de Bruyne’s return from injury but he has rekindled Pellegrini’s last campaign in Manchester. The Belgian’s return has been seamless. He came back into the fold against Bournemouth and influenced a win alongside the dazzling cast of City’s attack.
Sergio Agüero and David Silva have run the show and been the attacking axis for the time they’ve been there. City’s fluidity came through their understanding but so too did the moments of brilliance to steal goals. But now the Chelsea reject, de Bruyne, is making himself the catalyst to Agüero’s corrosion of opposition.
When Silva was central to their connective play, there was a lot of square passing and worked well with bodies around the ball, making overlaps and darting runs into the box. That’s something City haven’t managed to recreate this season and that lent itself to the passive process of post-Christmas performances. That’s why’s de Bruyne’s influence has been a warm welcome.
Playing closest to the Argentine, the two link up often and complement each other very well. The pair like to play a vertical game a lot more than the rest of their team care to. This direct approach speeds up attacks and will benefit them against a shaken Real Madrid side. If Agüero’s allowed to play off the defender’s shoulder and de Bruyne can escape Casemiro they may relish the next 180 minutes against them.
The Belgian said pre-match, “I think our team always create chances, I think we are not a defensive team, so I don’t think scoring is the main issue.” That’s a call to the defenders to tighten up and doing to against a Madrid attack that Zidane finally has clicking. A challenge they may not cope well with. And that shifts some of the burden to the front line.
Tonight’s tie may be a cagey affair if away goals worry Pellegrini. A back and forth, counter-counter may also develop if either midfield collapses. That may play into City’s hands because of their divisive execution of splintering attacks. The team are embracing this style more and players like Fernandinho provide a massive advantage in such games. And the youngster Iheanacho couldn’t ask for a better playing environment to establish himself.
City can make it out of tonight with a win. Centre backs will have to communicate well and hand over markers intelligently to keep Madrid outside their box but it won’t happen all night. Madrid’s midfield is fragile and could be an area to disrupt.