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Back Real Madrid to beat Manchester City in the first leg of this Champions League semi-final. Carlo Ancelotti’s side are tough to defeat in this competition and we fancy them to take an aggregate lead to the Etihad Stadium next week.
Real Madrid have a love affair with the Champions League. They have won this tournament 14 times in total, which is double the amount of the second-most successful side, AC Milan. Madrid enjoy winning the La Liga title too, but Europe is invariably their priority.
Barcelona have been the best team in Spain this season, and Madrid may yet finish in third place behind both Xavi Hernandez’s side and Atletico Madrid. But this can still be a successful campaign for the Blancos, who lifted the Copa del Rey trophy by beating Osasuna at the weekend.
There are no guarantees in soccer, but most followers of the sport believe the winner of the Champions League will come from this semi-final. The other last-four tie between AC Milan and Inter contains two teams who have punched above their weight to reach this stage.
Madrid, on the other hand, are accustomed to reaching the latter stages of the competition. They have done so this term by topping a group containing RB Leipzig, Shakhtar Donetsk and Celtic, before easing past Liverpool and Chelsea in the knockout phase. Neither Premier League team ever really got close to knocking Madrid out.
Carlo Ancelotti’s side will not get fazed no matter what happens on Tuesday. Their capacity to remain calm under pressure is remarkable - and their manager, who has won the Champions League more often than any other head coach, plays a big part in Madrid’s unflappable nature.
“In this competition he’s the king,” Guardiola said of Ancelotti at the weekend. “What they [Madrid] have done in the last years is amazing.”
Manchester City do not have the same heritage in the Champions League as their upcoming opponents. This is a club which is still awaiting its first trophy, having only ever reached the final on one occasion - Guardiola’s team were beaten by Chelsea in the 2021 showpiece.
City have continually fallen short in Europe under their current manager, despite their dominance of domestic soccer. Indeed, a run of 10 consecutive victories has put them on course to win a fifth Premier League title in the last six seasons. Yet continental glory has hitherto proved elusive.
City looked well positioned to break their Champions League duck last term. They faced Madrid in the semi-finals and led 5-3 on aggregate in the 90th minute of the second leg.
Yet City somehow contrived to concede twice in the dying embers of the game, before Madrid scored the winner in extra time. Not for the first time, Guardiola’s side snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
In terms of consistent quality, City are the best team in Europe right now. If these two teams played in the same 38-game league season, the English side would almost certainly amass more points. But knockout soccer is a different beast and Madrid have history on their side in this tie.
However, it is worth noting that City have different weapons at their disposal this season. With Erling Haaland leading the line, there may well be a different outcome in this semi.
City certainly deserve to be here, having thrashed RB Leipzig 8-1 on aggregate in the last 16, before beating Bayern Munich 4-1 over two legs in the quarter-finals. Now they will aim to make club history by scooping the prize for the first time.
This tie is unlikely to be decided on Tuesday, no matter the result. Even a comfortable City win at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu would not necessarily spell the end given Madrid’s penchant for dramatic, improbable comebacks.
Both sides have a chance to take control of the semi-final, though. It will be interesting to see how Madrid approach the match tactically. Will they cede possession and focus on doing damage in transition, or will they look to compete with City for control of the ball?
Madrid are an adaptable team and have been for some time. Some clubs have a clearly defined playing philosophy; Madrid’s philosophy is to win trophies. They will be able to pull off either approach on Tuesday.
City are a fantastic soccer team but they will be under pressure in this game. They have never before got over the line in Europe and that could be a factor. For instance, how would City respond if they went 1-0 down and were under the cosh in front of a raucous Bernabeu crowd?
Guardiola’s side are deservedly the favorites to reach the final. But they will not have everything their own way in the first leg, in which we fancy Madrid to come out on top. Back a home win in what promises to be an absorbing encounter.
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Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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