Manchester City will host Real Madrid in the first leg of the Champions League semifinals on Tuesday in a meeting of two clubs with a gulf in pedigree that could be scarcely be any wider. While Real Madrid are the most successful outfit in the history of Europe’s premier competition, having held the trophy aloft 10 times, Manchester City had never even been beyond the last 16 prior to this season. It is the ultimate clash of the establishment side against the nouveau-riche.
For Manchester City, then, the motivation is already high to further show that they belong among Europe’s true elite. For coach Manuel Pellegrini, though, although he denies it, there must surely be extra incentive.
Pellegrini has done fine jobs with middling Spanish clubs Villarreal and Malaga, but his step up to a truly giant club and the chance to manage Real Madrid in 2008 came to a unsavory end after just a single season. The Chilean led Real Madrid to their highest points total in La Liga history that campaign, but the fact that Pep Guardiola’s brilliant Barcelona team still edged them out for the title and Madrid suffered early exits in the Champions League and Copa de Rey meant Pellegrini was shown the exit door.
The manner of his dismissal, though, would have left a bad taste in the mouth of even the most unruffled of individuals. Pellegrini’s exit and Jose Mourinho’s arrival was widely known to be on the cards months before it was confirmed, with the Chilean’s position regularly undermined. Still, in an interview with Spanish daily AS ahead of his meeting with his former employees, Pellegrini was keen to play down any personal animosity with Real Madrid or president Florentino Perez.
“I don’t have anything against Florentino Pérez or the Real Madrid board,” he said. “I was lucky enough to be the manager of that great institution for a season when the situation maybe wasn’t the best it could have been. But we performed in La Liga, it was Real’s best season in history up to that point. For me it has always been a source of pride to have managed Real Madrid and I don’t have any desire for revenge against anybody.”
For Pellegrini. the current situation at Manchester City must feel painfully similar. Again he has found himself being pushed aside for a manager, in this case Guardiola, who it is perceived can take the team to an extra level. A place in the Champions League final, and perhaps lifting the trophy would present a powerful case that he is a manager fit for the top.
After a difficult season, in which Manchester City are fighting just for a Champions League place rather than the Premier League title, City will enter Tuesday’s visit of Real Madrid in fine form. Since the return from injury of record signing Kevin de Bruyne, City have won five and drawn two of their seven matches, which included victory over Paris Saint-Germain in the quarterfinals. And Pellegrini couldn’t have wished for a better warmup for the the semifinal first leg than a comfortable 4-0 victory over Stoke City that also allowed De Bruyne and the recently returned Vincent Kompany to be rested.
Real Madrid should also go into Tuesday’s match with confidence, although they endured a far tougher time on Saturday. Thrust back into the Primera Division title race after Barcelona’s unexpected collapse, Madrid were staring at the end of their hopes after falling 2-0 behind to Rayo Vallecano. But, inspired by Gareth Bale, reveling in the enforced absence through injury of Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid fought back to claim victory and remain just a single point behind Barcelona and Atlético Madrid at the top of La Liga.
That win made it five victories on the bounce for Zinedine Zidane’s side, including a comeback from a 2-0 first-leg deficit against Wolfsburg in the Champions League quarterfinals. However, while their form has been mighty impressive of late, they will go into Tuesday’s first leg with worrying doubts over the fitness of two of their famed front three.
Ronaldo sat out on Saturday with a thigh strain, and, although he is expected to feature against Manchester City, whether he will be fully fit is another matter. There is an even bigger question mark over Karim Benzema, who limped out of the win over Rayo Vallecano.
City, though, have injury concerns of their own, with Yaya Toure and Fernando both picking up knocks against Stoke.
Prediction: While both teams have been in good form, they have continued to show that their defenses remain far from rock solid. While semifinals, especially the first legs, are usually tense occasions, it is hard to imagine there not being goals on Tuesday. The doubts over Ronaldo and Benzema could be a big boost to City and potentially help them to get a crucial first-leg advantage to take to the Bernabeu. However, they may have to settle for a scoring draw that would leave Madrid in the box seat.
Predicted score: Manchester City 2-2 Real Madrid