MADRID, Spain– 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, they have gone past the Champions League’s quarter-finals only once, reaching the last four in 2016, only to be beaten by Madrid.
Zinedine Zidane’s side, meanwhile, have surrendered dominance in La Liga to Barcelona but made amends for one Spanish league title in seven years by winning an 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 have perhaps boasted an even better all-round collection of players and their excellence in England points to a club well-equipped to excel in Europe.
Guardiola has been accused of over-thinking 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 for coming through the kind of crunch games that have 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 their tournament, a conviction based on historic success that makes them assured under pressure and ruthless in the decisive moments.