MAN CITY - REAL MADRID
Man City-Real: Nouveau riche receive footballing royalty
Champions League semi-final debutants City host 10-time winners Real Madrid, who are making their 27th last-four appearance.
In the 2006-07 season, Manchester City spent 7.5 million euros on transfers. Last summer, they spent over 203. That's what Real Madrid are up against tonight, as they prepare for their 27th European Cup semi-final: a club previously used to wheeling along in the Premier League peloton, thrust into the big time by the personal fortune of Sheikh Mansour.
Having forked out more than a billion euros in the past eight years, they have twice won the domestic title and have now, finally, made it to the semi-finals of the Champions League. They have the players, and the trophies are starting to arrive; but they are still to earn the respect brought by a long-term tradition of consistent achievement. In that sense, they're no Real Madrid just yet.
Both sides have played the same amount of games in their respective leagues this season (35), and Zinedine Zidane's men have picked up 15 more points, scored 38 more goals and conceded two fewer: revealing stats if you consider that LaLiga is a competition equal to, if not (judging by a comparison of Spanish and English clubs in Europe) better than the Premier League.
The hosts come into the clash unbeaten in seven, with Belgian Kevin de Bruyne sparkling in attacking midfield (15 goals and 14 assists) and Sergio Agüero outstanding up front (having grabbed 28 goals). They're also enjoying the fruits of their academy in the shape of Kelechi Iheanacho, a 19-year-old Nigerian who has plundered 11 goals almost entirely as a sub. He'll be on the bench again, and he'll be an excellent plan B.
Manager Manuel Pellegrini, who avoided being drawn into his turbulent year at Real on Monday, will be without Yaya Touré and is poised to lend steel to the middle of the park by pairing the hard-working Brazilians Fernando and Fernandinho. Spaniards Jesús Navas and David Silva, previously tracked by Madrid - halfheartedly so - are expected to line up either side of De Bruyne.
City are a strong unit, one boosted by knocking out Paris Saint-Germain, but they're not Real. They've netted 17 times in the Champions League this term; Cristiano Ronaldo has hit 16 on his own. The Portuguese, who missed the weekend win over Rayo Vallecano, is set to lead the charge for the guests. There are greater doubts over the involvement of Karim Benzema, who limped off at Vallecas, although Zidane was optimistic in his pre-match press conference.
Between them, Cristiano and Benzema have notched up 20 of Madrid's 26 strikes in the continent's premier club tournament this year - a campaign in which, incidentally, Gareth Bale is yet to get off the mark. The alternative to the Frenchman is the multi-functional Lucas Vázquez who, incredibly, has enjoyed fewer minutes in this term's competition than any other outfield member of the first-team squad.
Either way, Madrid will set up around a midfield trio of Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, with the Brazil cap - who is fourth only to Cristiano, Kroos and Keylor Navas in European game time in 2015-16 - now something of a man for the big occasion. Behind them, the debate centres around Sergio Ramos' defensive partner. Agüero's pace suggests Raphael Varane would be advisable; however, the importance of the encounter calls for the undeniable experience of Pepe.