Manchester City Run the Risk of Rust as Real Madrid Showdown Looms
Sunday’s postponement of Manchester City’s match against West Ham may have an undesired corollary for Pep Guardiola’s side: they now risk being undercooked for the Champions League last-16 first leg against Real Madrid at the Bernabéu on 26 February.
Factor in doubt over Raheem Sterling’s availability because of a hamstring injury and similar uncertainty over Aymeric Laporte’s fitness after a near season-long layoff with a knee problem and the storm-induced abandonment of the Hammers’ visit was not what Guardiola required before taking on Real.
By the time of that game in Madrid, City will have had only 90 minutes of football in more than three weeks to prepare: the Premier League game against Leicester City at the King Power Stadium four days before.
It is an odd situation for Guardiola because a prevailing mantra of his since taking over at City in the summer of 2016 has been how the volume of matches footballers play exhausts them. The current winter break was welcome, then, as Guardiola said on Friday. “We have one more game [West Ham] then we have days off and we prepare for the next games, I think a break is good for everyone,” he said.
However, this was before the game with West Ham at the Etihad was called off, because of travel issues specific to the Manchester area – trams, trains, and roads all being affected.
Now, the relief of a fortnight break becomes a too-long three-week cessation before a crucial tie in a competition which is City’s prime focus given they are 22 points behind Liverpool in their title defense.
The Champions League is the trophy Guardiola has yet to claim for City, a glaring hole that leaves a question mark over a glittering managerial CV. After failing to achieve Champions League glory since Barcelona won it in 2011, with a glittering side including Lionel Messi, the question is: has Guardiola got the smarts to triumph over the continent’s heavyweights without a five-times Ballon d’Or winner in his ranks?
In contrast to City, Real are going head to head with Barcelona in La Liga and are the nonpareil of Europe’s aristocrats in the business of winning European Cups. Los Blancos have a record 13 – three of which were claimed in consecutive seasons under Zinedine Zidane, who is again in charge at the Bernabéu.
Real may no longer have Cristiano Ronaldo but it is only two years since their last triumph – the 3-1 win over Liverpool – while City’s record under Guardiola is underwhelming. His “best” return is guiding City to the quarter-finals – twice – where English opposition in Liverpool and Tottenham proved too good, while there was also their 2016-17 elimination that remains the oddest under him.
Leading 5-3 after the home leg against Monaco the manager made the odd claim before the return that City would be “killed” if they did not score at the Stade Louis II. They subsequently froze, lost 3-1, and were dumped out on away goals at the last-16 stage.
What is not required, then, is to be ring-rusty before a first leg at a venue that will be a cauldron, especially as City have lost their past two matches – to Manchester United in the Carabao Cup and Tottenham in the league – and who in their next will not relish facing Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester, whose slick style is bound to trouble Guardiola’s creaking team.
In Sergio Agüero, who is 31, David Silva (34) and Fernandinho (34) are three mainstays who are feeling the demands of Guardiola’s constant-pressing play. The defense – as it was at Monaco in 2017 and continues to be – is not the best advertisement for the manager’s abilities. John Stones is lacking confidence, Nicolás Otamendi might have been sold last summer and Kyle Walker’s erratic defensive qualities have led to him losing his place on occasion.
Then, there is the Laporte conundrum. The silver lining of Guardiola having to operate without him for nearly five months was supposed to be the Frenchman returning in early 2020 fit and fresh for the tilt at the Champions League. Instead, after 78 minutes of the 1-0 win at Sheffield United on 21 January, the center-back has not featured since.
The manager says this is due only to managing Laporte’s return with caution and nothing else. Yet the bottom line is that even if he comes through the full match at Leicester and can face Real, the 25-year-old will struggle even more for rhythm than teammates that evening.
Guardiola will also want Sterling’s goal threat (he is the club’s second-highest scorer this season) and pace as weapons to trouble Real but there is no guarantee the player will be fit and even if he is the forward is sure to lack sharpness, too.
There is an irony in Guardiola believing a break is needed for players and this then backfiring because of Sunday’s inclement weather. Especially as a fixture pile-up beckons. City already have to reschedule the Premier League match with Arsenal on 1 March because of their Carabao Cup final against Aston Villa. Now, the West Ham game will have to be squeezed in too.
It all means that the manager’s strategic prowess is soon to have a fascinating test.