Pep Guardiola lives for nights under the lights at the Bernabeu.
As a former Barcelona player and manager – not to mention a prominent advocate for Catalan independence – he is not a popular man inside Real Madrid’s gigantic famous stadium.
But so often in the past he has thrived in the lions’ den. His mind is obsessed by the theory of football, of how to beat the best – and challenges don’t come much tougher than Real Madrid away in the knockout stages of the Champions League.
Unsurprisingly, given the quality of his players, Guardiola never lost at the Bernabeu with Barcelona. Some of his proudest moments as a manager have come at the home of the side he most fervently opposes.
Immediate talking point
Right from the off the Manchester City manager was front and centre. His team selection was a classic of the Guardiola canon, an immediate talking point on a huge occasion.
Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, David Silva and Fernandinho were all left on the bench. Gabriel Jesus was deployed on the left wing, tasked with nullifying the attacking threat of Dani Carvalhal. Kevin De Bruyne was to lead the press as a false No9.
From another manager it might have sparked revolt amongst City fans. But a coach of Guardiola’s standing is deserving of patience – and that patience was richly rewarded in a slow burn of a performance that eventually dismantled Zinedine Zidane’s side in a 2-1 win.
Not so long ago Madrid had won the competition three years in succession, and to call them visibly past their best would have been disingenuous.
Real have the joint-best defence in Europe’s top five league, with just 17 goals conceded in LaLiga. They had lost once at home all season before City turned up, while Zidane was the owner of a proud Champions League knockout record which read: played 12, won 12.
City flipped that narrative on its head. Their conservatism and tactical awareness played out just as Guardiola had hoped: Real could not play through them and looked frustrated and blunted.
Bar a low save from Karim Benzema’s header the hosts created nothing in the first half, while, despite patrolling the left, Jesus had two chances. Guardiola was biding his time and even an injury for Aymeric Laporte could not derail the grand plan.
As the game opened up in the second half there was only one team looking threatening. Riyad Mahrez curled wide on the counter and forced a save from Thibaut Courtois at his near post before racing free from a simple ball over the top to once again test the home goalkeeper.
Madrid’s opener came completely against the run of play. A mix-up between Nicolas Otamendi and Rodri allowed Vinicius Junior to charge at an unprepared defence and the 19-year-old beat Kyle Walker before squaring for Isco to make it 1-0.
Sting in the tail
However, City weathered the briefest of storms before Guardiola showed his hand, bringing on Raheem Sterling in the 73rd minute. Five minutes later they were level, De Bruyne wriggling to the byline and standing up a cross for Jesus to nod past the flapping hand of Courtois.
City continued to turn the screw and after Jesus headed over another opportunity Sterling’s fresh legs carried him past Carvajal, whose attempted slide-tackle was poorly timed. City had missed their last four penalties, but De Bruyne stepped up and buried it to double their away goals tally.
There was still time for it to get worse for Madrid. Casemiro’s sloppy pass invited Jesus in behind the defence and Sergio Ramos’ contact was enough to earn him an almost customary red card.
The Guardiola master plan was complete. For one evening at least the 22-point gap to the Premier League summit and pending Champions League ban was forgotten.