A Night At The Bernabeu

September 13, 2012 in Europe

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When the Champions League draw unfolded for Manchester City in the only way that it could - that is to say drawn in the Group of Death for the second year in a row, a group so ridiculously difficult that it made last year’s group look like a cakewalk (did I mention that City didn’t make it through that easier group? I’m not worried. Not worried at all…) - a surprising majority of City fans seemed positively giddy about the draw for reasons I found unfathomable. After last year’s Champions League disappointment, I wanted progression more than I wanted nights to remember. Games against giants of European football Real Madrid and no slouches themselves Ajax and Borussia Dortmund will have an incredible sense of wonder and occasion in the moments before kick-off, but once the games start and we have to beat the Spanish, German and Dutch champions, suddenly the view seems less rose-tinted to me. We could very well not make it through this group, whereas with almost any other variation, I’d have felt very confident.

But as I write this, we are only five days away from our first competitive game against Real Madrid in the history of Manchester City Football Club, and if I don’t see their point, I can begin to understand where they’re coming from. If you can look past the immediate gratification side of it, let the thought of the 3,4,5 nil defeat you’ve been fearing wash over you, then this is an incredible place to be as a football fan. To walk on that pitch where so many of the greats of the game have plied their trade over the years, not as trespassers but as equals, and think the thought ‘hey, if things break for us, maybe we can get something against Real Madrid’, and that not be a product of intense schizophrenic delusion, but be a thing that, theoretically at least, is a possibility? That is a nice feeling.

Of course, I also think an element of that reaction was fan confidence, a subset who, because we won the league on goal difference, have confidence to reach the stratosphere, and believe we can beat anyone, thanks to hangover euphoria. This is less wise. Not to say that we CAN’T beat anyone on our day, it’s just much, much lesser teams than us can beat anyone on their day, and that’s not going to be enough in a group where the all or nothing games are as unrelenting as this. Be optimistic, sure, but let’s not lose our heads; Real Madrid are a better team than City and it’s important not to forget this. Dream but don’t expect, is what I’d say to these fans. Certainty is a dangerous mindset to have in football, as many a confident United fan found out last season.

As for the game itself, I’m tempted to think our natural style of play might suit Real Madrid, who, despite their pre-eminence, play scintillating counter-attack football; so that’s our 4-2-3-1 formation, which usually is so central that it becomes a 4-2-2-2, in which we prefer to have all the possession, dictate the game and slowly grind down the opponent, whereas Madrid thrive on quick, ruthless acts of devastation. I’m worried they might see all that empty space on the wings and thrive. So if it were up to me, I’d probably go to a 4-5-1 formation that incorporated some width, with Tevez at the head of a midfield diamond. I’d suggest the 3-5-2 formation if I had confidence in our players to pull it off, as it makes the most sense with the players we have and with the added strength of Maicon, Garcia and Sinclair, we’d be a firmer outfit than the fairly disastrous experiment against Liverpool (which I advocated on this very website, and still believe it’s worth a couple of poor performances to give ourselves the option of variety).

Sergio Aguero will be technically fit by this game, but odds are he’ll have only played a cameo against Stoke, 20 or 25 minutes, and throwing him into a game of this magnitude as a first game would be a roll of the dice, but then again, that’s what the money is for, and Aguero is a £38 million striker for a reason. I think City functioning on the level of the best teams in Europe requires Aguero and Tevez starting with each other, because the few moments the universe has allowed them to play together have been scintillating, and they can stand up to any front two in the world when they’re on it.

But however we line-up, the most important thing I want out of this landmark fixture is not to look like we don’t belong there. I fear for a heavy defeat, not because of the points or because it means Real are clearly better than us, but because it would be a statement, the connotations of which would be that we don’t belong here. That’s what I’m afraid of, looking kids among the grown-ups. That’s probably some hangover negativity from when we were s*** though, and in reality, I expect a narrow defeat at the Bernabeu, with us to give them a real game back at the Etihad. And despite the difficulty of this group, logic says that we have the quality to make it through. But of course, logic always says a lot of things, doesn’t it?