There was a glint in Pep Guardiola’s eye as he talked about Real Madrid, as European football’s most influential coach gets ready to tackle its ultimate winning machine.
Never mind Wilder v Fury. Guardiola’s duels with Madrid have produced storylines to eclipse even heavyweight boxing’s greatest tales.
Barcelona‘s Lionel Messi-inspired 6-2 win at the Bernabeu in May 2009 and 5-0 dismantling at the Nou Camp 18 months later; the four Clasicos in 18 days in spring 2011, when the atmosphere between Guardiola’s Barca and Jose Mourinho‘s Madrid became venomous; the humiliating 5-0 aggregate defeat in the 2014 Champions League semi-final when Guardiola was in charge of Bayern.
Pep Guardiola was in a good mood after Gabriel Jesus’s winner for Man City against Leicester
Guardiola gave detailed insight on the reasons for Real Madrid’s European prowess
So it had to be them. As Manchester City head to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to fight their two-year UEFA ban from the Champions League for Financial Fair Play breaches, their next high-profile opponents just had to be Real Madrid.
With the spotlight on the Premier League champions never brighter, we might have expected a few run-of-the-mill lines from Guardiola about the importance of the game before he hurried away from the King Power Stadium, following this narrow win over Leicester.
Instead, the 49-year-old gave detailed insight on the reasons for Madrid’s European prowess, their response to the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo two years ago, and what City must do to build a similar legacy.
Perhaps he was relieved to talk about something other than Financial Fair Play, perhaps he had foreseen Madrid’s surprise 1-0 defeat at Levante that allowed Barcelona to retake the lead in La Liga.
Either way, Guardiola appeared confident ahead of his 18th meeting with Madrid as a manager.
‘It is the real, real test,’ he said. ‘The king of this competition against one team who are not used to playing these kind of games. It will be in a marvellous stadium where we have to show our personality, so I know that my players, myself, all the club want to fight until the end for this title.
‘If you want to win it, you have to face these teams — Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Barcelona.
‘You have players who come to Madrid and pull on the shirt, they know they are defending their history. That makes an extra thing.
‘They are the club we want to emulate and imitate. I want to go there and, at the end of the game, I want to say, ‘We were what we are’. This is the most important thing in these type of competitions. I have an incredible admiration for Real Madrid and I know how difficult it is. The players who have played there have played so many times in the final and I don’t know how many times each one has lifted the trophy.’
Guardiola faces the immense challenge of facing Luka Modric and Madrid this week
In most of Guardiola’s meetings with Madrid as a manager, they had Cristiano Ronaldo
Guardiola understands uncertainty is set to overshadow the rest of City’s season. At one point, he said that if City lost to Madrid ‘there will be next season’ before catching himself and adding: ‘I don’t know.’
Yet his job will be to ensure that no such thoughts enter the minds of his players on Wednesday. In most of his meetings with Madrid as a manager, the 13-times European champions had Ronaldo in their side.
Ronaldo is now with Juventus and Guardiola believes Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane has adopted a more assertive playing style without him.
‘Ronaldo, like Messi, is a guy who scores 50 or 60 goals a season,’ he said. ‘Any team can suffer a little bit if they leave.
‘But it is now their second season without him and Madrid are playing at a good level. I have seen their games and there are things they did not do before. They press forward and they don’t wait. They are incredibly aggressive with the quality of the players they have.’
Even without Ronaldo, Real’s squad still boasts star players like striker Karim Benzema
Even without Ronaldo, the Real squad is impressive, although Eden Hazard will be missing after he broke an ankle on Saturday.
These matches are precisely what Leicester hope they will experience next season, as long as they can reverse a drop in form that has brought only one league win in their last seven games.
They need Jamie Vardy to rediscover his scoring touch. The striker has not found the net for more than two months.
But Eden Hazard will be missing once again for Madrid after he broke an ankle on Saturday
But Rodgers is confident the 33-year-old’s form will return. He said: ‘Each game he is getting back to himself again. It’s probably taken a little bit of time to get back. I’ve got no doubts about him.’
City substitute Gabriel Jesus’s goal settled this match but Leicester will still be confident of playing in the Champions League next season.
City can’t be so sure. That is why Wednesday’s Real test is even more mouthwatering.