Ahead of Tuesday’s Champions League semi-final clash with Real Madrid, Manchester City are in unchartered territory.
Of course, broadly speaking that isn’t true; this is the second season in a row – the third overall – that City have reached the last four of Europe’s premier club competition. Last season they expertly navigated the challenge of Paris Saint-Germain without ever really looking like they were in trouble.
This year they face the 13-time winners of the competition, but despite facing such a formidable opponent, there is a quiet confidence that City should progress to the final. That’s never been the case before – not even last year – but it’s not because of City’s attacking prowess or majestic talents.
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City qualified for the semi-finals in the most un-City way imaginable. After 135 minutes of patiently trying to break down Atletico Madrid over two legs, the Spaniards launched a ferocious attack that forced Pep Guardiola’s side to abandon their usual game.
Instead of free-flowing attack City were defending with their backs against the wall, repelling wave after wave of attack as the frenzied home crowd breathed life into their team. City even resorted to adopting Atletico’s own gamesmanship tactics; wasting time and winding Atletico up until their lost their cool.
In short, City suffered but came through the other side. That is something that this team, whether under Roberto Mancini, Manuel Pellegrini or Pep Guardiola, has not been able to do in Europe before.
“Teams play, they are good teams, and we have to suffer sometimes,” City’s holding midfielder Rodri said of the challenge overcome by his side.
“You cannot expect to be 90 minutes attacking, you have to defend also and be aware we have to defend and sometimes. It is part of Champions League football and we learned in the last years these situations and are improving a lot. We have to be calm, be mentally strong in the bad moments and just show the football we have.”
The ability to suffer does not at first sound like a desirable trait, but as Rodri said, sometimes it is necessary; you cannot always have it all your own way.
Many past European champions have battled through seemingly near-fatal orders on their way to achieving the ultimate glory; Chelsea in 2012, Real Madrid in 2014 and Liverpool in 2005 and 2019, to name a few recent examples.
In recent years Guardiola has stressed, on multiple occasions, that City don’t have the necessary experience or ‘relationship’ with the Champions League to be considered among the favorites to win it.
Their past failings have backed him up; ever since first participating in the competition in 2011, the Blues have largely failed to replicate the calmness and confidence their exude at home. At the first whiff of danger, they have tended to crumble.
Reaching the final last season was as huge step in the right direction, but the recent goalless draw at the Wanda Metropolitano was arguably even more important. It showed that while City and Guardiola will stick to their Cruyffian principles 99% of the time and play beautiful football, if circumstances dictate then they are capable of scrapping it out to get a result.
It’s an invaluable quality to have, and Real Madrid know that better than most. With Karim Benzema in the best form of his career, there is a good chance that City will have to suffer at some point over 180 minutes against Los Blancos. But unlike in the past, they have the grit and backbone to cope.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.