MADRID – Manchester City will be up against both Real Madrid and their reputation on Wednesday as the Champions League’s biggest winners play one of its biggest underachievers at the Santiago Bernabeu.
After City’s win over Leicester on Saturday, Pep Guardiola said: “We will try to be ourselves. We can win and we can lose but we must try to be ourselves.”
Yet in some ways, City will seek a role reversal too. Madrid’s record is the envy of Europe but in particular by teams like City, whose financial might and technical talent has translated only into disappointment outside domestic competition.
In the time City have won three Premier League titles and five domestic cups, but advancing past the Champions League’s quarter-inals only once, reaching the last four in 2016, only to be beaten by Madrid.
Zinedine Zidane’s side, meanwhile, hassurrendered dominance in La Liga to Barcelona but made amends for one Spanish League title in seven years by winning four Champions Leagues out of the last six.
Few would argue that quality explains the difference. Madrid’s success has certainly been due in part to the brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo but City has perhaps boasted an even better all-around collection of players and its excellence in England points to a club well-equipped to excel in Europe.
Guardiola has been accused of overthinking against elite opposition, too, yet City’s lethargy encompasses nine seasons in the Champions League and Guardiola has only been in charge for three.
Instead, Madrid’s habit of coming through the kind of crunch games that has so often proved City’s undoing suggests each club’s identification with the Champions League has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Madrid believe this tournament is its tournament, a conviction based on historic success that makes it assured under pressure and ruthless in the decisive moments.
“When you have a history of the (Alfredo) Di Stefano period, winning five or six European Cups at that time, it means a new player that comes to Real Madrid and puts on that shirt knows ‘we have to defend our history,’ ” said Guardiola. “That gives them a boost because they live that history.”
When Madrid last won the Champions League by beating Liverpool in the final in 2018, its advance to the trophy seemed to rely on a number of crucial interventions falling its way.
In the semifinal against Bayern Munich, Real progressed after an error from Bayern’s goalkeeper Sven Ulreich.
In the quarters, Madrid was awarded a fortuitous 97th-minute penalty to beat Juventus. Even in the last 16, Madrid faced a Paris Saint-Germain side without the injured Neymar.
Yet where some saw luck, Madrid’s coach and players saw a refusal to give in.
“The point is Madrid never give up,” said Zidane after Real’s last-gasp triumph over Juventus. “We came up against a number of obstacles but we believe in the goals we want to achieve and we achieve them because we fight.”
For City, that refusal to accept defeat is still to be established and with every year that victory evades them, doubts grow too.
“It’s a real, real test,” said Guardiola. “The king of this competition against a team who are not used to playing this kind of game much, because our best performance was one semifinal in our history.
“So, in a marvellous stadium we have to show our personalty.”