Manchester City might have to cope without Sergio Aguero for the rest of their Champions League campaign, but the way they played against Real Madrid showed they are capable of conquering Europe without him.
Of course they will miss Aguero if he is not back from his knee injury in time for what is now an eight-team mini-tournament in Portugal, starting next week.
Aguero is a world-class striker and none of City’s other players are as clinical as he is in front of goal. I really hope he is ready, and he makes it, because their chances are improved if he can play.
But, even when he is not in the team, they have different options that bring plenty of other qualities to their forward line – and complement the rest of their team too.
We saw that when City saw off Real at Etihad Stadium on Friday, just as we did when they beat the Spanish champions in the first leg at the Bernabeu in February – when Aguero was fit but was left on the bench.
This time it was the pace and energy up front from Gabriel Jesus, Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling that unsettled Real with their relentless pressing and led to both of City’s goals that sent them through.
What really impressed me about City’s performance, though, was the way the whole team worked so well together, whatever their different roles were on the night.
Again, their energy was important, but so was the way they were organised and how they showed an understanding of how to win as a group.
We know City have got some outstanding individuals but this victory was down to the way they operated as a team – if they are going to go all the way in Lisbon, they will need more of the same.
Pep Guardiola’s plan worked to perfection in the first leg, and he got it right again at an empty Etihad Stadium.
It was not a shock to see him using a false nine again, but it was a surprise to see Foden asked to play that role.
When I first saw Pep’s team, I thought Foden would be on the right but, when City were out of possession early on, he played the role of a number nine and 10 too.
That left Jesus on the left and Sterling on the right but, as Pep said afterwards, they were not very wide in the first half.
Instead it felt like Sterling, for example, would come inside and operate in that channel between Ferland Mendy and Eder Militao on the left of Real’s defence.
Part of the reason Pep switched his front players around at half-time was to give City more width, so Jesus moved central, Foden was pushed wide on the right and Sterling went over to the left.
By then, City were operating with a more orthodox three-man attack when they had the ball, but they did not let the tempo drop when they were out of possession.
That was possible because Foden, who had given so much, was replaced by another really hard-working player in Bernardo Silva.
Some people have questioned why Foden was taken off when he was playing so well but, when he was substituted, after 67 minutes, the rest of the City team had covered an average of just over 7km. Foden had done over 9km in the same time.
Right from the start, he was everywhere, putting pressure on the Real defence. Yes, they made some bad errors, including for both of City’s goals, but that was because they were never allowed to settle down.
It was the same all over the pitch – City were brilliant in transition, and they were so quick to react when they lost the ball. That set the tone for what was to come.
City’s backline gets a lot of criticism but I thought the whole team did extremely well defensively against Real.
Fernandinho and Aymeric Laporte have hardly played together at the back recently – this was only the second time they have been centre-half partners since February – but Rodri dropped in to help them out when it was needed and Kevin de Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan were also working hard to fill any gaps.
The only time Real got behind them, they scored, and it took a really pinpoint cross from Rodrygo and a trademark finish from Karim Benzema for that to happen.
Otherwise, though, Real were restricted to snapshots and efforts from distance, because of the balanced and disciplined way that City were set up.
Kyle Walker was a great example of that at right-back. Defensively, he was right up for the challenge of dealing with Eden Hazard and he was always ready for him.
Walker saw the one-twos coming and said « go on then, beat me in a race » and Hazard did not want to do it. He was coming back inside because he knew he wasn’t getting any joy out wide.
Normally, you would expect to see Walker flying forward too but he barely made it into the final third this time because his job was to stop Hazard and he did not want leave the door open for a counter-attack.
So, City got it right at both ends of the pitch and, as well as their high levels of organisation, the other big positive for them was their composure.
Yes, things got a bit tense when Real equalised on the night but there was never a sense that the home side were panicking.
In the second half they always felt in control of the tie, and they probably should have won it by a greater margin.
There is still lots to do if they are going to go all the way and win the Champions League, but this was an impressive way to book their place in Lisbon.
Get latest scores and headlines sent straight to your phone, sign-up to our newsletter and learn where to find us on online.
How to get into football – the most popular sport in the world, with clubs and facilities throughout the UK.
Abonnez-vous gratuitement et soyez le premier à liker et à partager:
Votre point de vue compte, donnez votre avisTéléchargez notre application Android