A treble and a double, royalty versus rebels, and a chance for revenge.
The next eight days will define Manchester City and Real Madrid’s season, with the two continental super powers meeting in the Champions League semi-finals for the second consecutive season.
One team has been specifically designed to win the biggest trophy that club football has to offer for the very first time. Their opponents are looking at retaining the cup, and making a success out of this season.
This is also a personal mission for Guardiola, given his record against Carlo Ancelotti in semi-finals and history of over complicating his team selection in the knock out rounds of the Champions League.
He first faced the Italian in 2014 and lost 1-0 in Spain with Bayern Munich. Guardiola went 4-2-4 in a bid to get goals and overturn the deficit and this ended up as their undoing, with Real winning 4-0 in the Allianz Arena.
Eight years later City were leading 5-3 on aggregate going into injury time at the Santiago Bernabéu and lost in extra-time.
That’s ultimately where their 2023 meeting will be won or lost, in the second leg at the Etihad Stadium.
Can Guardiola get his tactics right?
It’s not just about the City players keeping their emotions in check, but can Guardiola get his tactics right to navigate a Madrid team that could be holding a lead, or looking for a comeback?
The Catalan has repeatedly been undone by his own tactical failings in the Champions League, with the most notable example being the absence of a defensive midfield in the 2021 final against Chelsea in Porto.
He also tried to man-mark Luis Suarez, Messi, and Nemyar with three at the back during the 2015 semi-finals and saw his Bayern team torn apart by the soon to be European champions.
Guardiola had a similar set up for a quarter final against Lyon in 2020, with Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan also named in midfield. This left City open to counter attacks, and they ended up losing 3-1 on the night.
When the coach brought his team to Monaco in 2017 with a 5-3 aggregate lead, he told his players to attack. City started with five attacking players and Fernandinho the only holding midfielder. They lost 3-1 and the Ligue 1 side progressed to the quarter finals on away goals.
Team selection is key for City
Guardiola is no stranger to an attacking formation with his current squad. He recently started an attack consisting of Erling Haaland, Julián Álvarez, Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden, and Riyad Mahrez for a home Premier League game with struggling Leeds United at home.
For tonight, he has gone for a conventional 4-2-3-1 that seems built for possession with Bernardo City in the trio behind Haaland. This could easily turn into a 4-3-3 with Silva falling back to allow De Bruyne and Jack Grealish to make a front trio with Haaland.
What about comeback kings Real Madrid?
Real Madrid are no strangers to a game not going their way, and to keep doing what they are doing. That was evident with their spectacular comebacks last season against PSG and City, and earlier this year at Anfield when Liverpool went 2-0 up inside 15 minutes.
The Reds should have got a third in 24th, but some scrambling defensive work denied Mohamed Salah and Darwin Núñez.
The two Liverpool goals came from midfield, with the ball getting picked up and played down the right hand side. Those were moves had little or no build up, the team had to be concise to get through the Madrid defence.
That was at a time when Liverpool were struggling for form, and they met Chelsea when they were engulfed in crisis.
Real’s right hand side was targeted in the first leg by Chelsea, with Raheem Sterling almost scoring from a Reece James from that flank early in the game.
They were also caught out with a ball over the top that João Félix ran onto, and nothing came out of this.
It’s not unlike Real Madrid to concede chances, their best player in the 2022 final was goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois after he produced a string of excellent saves to deny Salah and Mane in Paris.
What about the second leg?
The question is, can this be sustained against the machine that is Haaland and the rest of the City forward line?
They learned the hard way last year in Manchester, and they produced one of the great European comebacks to set the record straight despite City having more than enough chances to kill the tie off in Madrid.
What happens over the next eight days will define both team’s seasons. City are on the cusp of a treble, and Real need to win the Champions League to say that this year was a success, their recent victory over Osasuna in the Copa del Rey final will mean nothing without number 15 beside it.