MANCHESTER CITY - REAL MADRID

Real Madrid: Valverde, Isco or Asensio - three into one for City

Zinedine Zidane has a big decision to make over which of Valverde, Isco or Asensio starts the Champions League second leg against Manchester City.

Zinedine Zidane's ‘surprises’ in his Real Madrid line-ups across this season have been a regular occurrence, with us in the media often having to rethink his strategy in the lead up to kick off. In the first huge game, for example, against PSG in the Parc des Princes, he surprised us with a hyper-offensive line-up with a trident of Hazard, Benzema and Bale, backed by Kroos, Casemiro and… James Rodríguez!

The perceived experiment did not go well as Madrid lost 3-0 but Zidane went with the same XI in the next match at the Pizjuán, and won. The Frenchman is happy to go with his convictions.

Real Madrid line-up decisions ahead of Man City

In the first Clásico of the season, Bale was selected again, up top with Benzema with the choice of Valverde on the right. In the second, he went with Vinicius, while maintaining Valverde on the right. Then there were the decisions in the first leg against Pep Guardiola's Manchester City, where Zidane left Kroos out, in what seemed a strange rotation choice that very few understood, not even Guardiola who was seen chatting animatedly with the German midfielder in the bowels of the Santiago Bernabéu after the game. Since then, notably, Kroos has never missed a match.

For Friday’s Champions League return leg, however, no thoughts of rotation exist. It could be the last game of the season, and the players come in fresh from a week off giving Zidane a clear chance to send out his strongest side. That said, there will be one key name missing, that of captain Sergio Ramos, who is suspended. This gives his understudy, Éder Militão, the most expensive defender in the history of Madrid, a great opportunity, and one he has already proclaimed he will take. It should also see Ferland Mendy confirm his place ahead of Marcelo as first choice left-back, while Courtois, Varane and Caravjal are nailed on to complete the defensive line.

Big game, big player | Eden Hazard of Real Madrid celebrates.

In midfield, the three that formed such an important part of the consecutive Champions League campaigns - Casemiro, Kroos and Modric - are unlikely to be changed, with Hazard (now fully recovered from his ankle injury) and Benzema (with 21 goals in the bag this season) set to line up ahead of them. That leaves one place in the XI to be filled, and there are three prime candidates: Valverde, Isco and Asensio. This appears to be the great unknown for the Etihad clash, and the choice made will condition the system and approach from the French manager.

Asensio, Valverde or Isco

With Asensio you would see a more attacking version of Zidane’s Madrid, but one that would likely be more exposed at the back. The thing is that Madrid cannot afford to be too cagey - a win is required to overturn the deficit - and the boy from Mallorca is the more offensively minded of the three. Since he returned after the knee operation that kept him out of the pre-pandemic season, he has scored three goals in the 334 minutes handed to him across nine games. The first of them came with his first comeback touch. A reminder to all of the ability that lies within and he could provide the spark that is very much needed.

However, despite the excitement that Asensio may arouse, previous decisions taking by Zidane suggest that he is more likely to plump for either Valverde or Isco. The Uruguayan has been a revelation this season, as the coach has often used him to balance the team by putting him on the inside right wing, giving Carvajal more freedom to storm forward. This was the case in both games against Barcelona as well as in the first leg against City, where ‘el pajarito’ replaced Kroos.

For his part, Isco (who also played in the Last 16 first leg) is often the cause of much debate, but usually ends up playing in games when something is on the line. He started in the three Champions League wins for Zidane, although for this game the doubt is that he has not been part of the team's last three training sessions. The club have stated that the Málaga boy will be available this week and that his slow down in activity was simply as a precaution, so tactics will then be the sole determinant, with Isco contributing more to the attack. If Valverde gives a pass every 1.6 minutes, Isco does it every 1.3. If the Uruguayan shoots at goal every 193 minutes, the ‘Málagueño’ does so every 85, although has only scored three compared to Valverde’s two. That said, to stop Guardiola’s talented set of players putting the tie to bed early, there is no contest. Valverde has recovered 170 balls this season against Isco's 85.

Of course, despite our stall being set out on Zidane singular choice, there are a number of other options available to the French coach as he bids to continue his two-legged unbeaten record. In the wings, sit the young Brazilians Vinicius and Rodrygo, both with their own methods for breaching the opposition back line, while there is also Lucas Vázquez and Bale, the latter with a habit of big-game surprises. As ever, we will have to wait until shortly before the referee blows his whistle in Manchester to know how Los Blancos will go into battle.