Why Man City need star player back to overcome Real Madrid next week

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Manchester City’s slightly patched up defence looked a little shaky at the Bernabeu on Tuesday.

Manchester City’s 4-0 win over Real Madrid last season is rightly remembered as one of the most glorious nights in the club’s history. The pinnacle, perhaps, of the Pep Guardiola era at the Etihad.

In contrast, for the opposition it was a humiliation, a drubbing of epic proportions for any side, let alone the world’s biggest club. It’s why revenge was so widely spoken of before this season’s double rematch.

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But that one-sided contest 11 months ago could have looked very different had Vinicius Junior managed to capitalise on a rare opening for Real, when the Brazilian fastened onto a through ball in behind after half an hour. Momentarily, it looked as if one of the world’s most potent attackers was about to advance at goal and face a one-on-one chance against Ederson. 

But before City fans even had time to draw breath, the sky blue blur of Kyle Walker’s retreating run had snuffed out the opportunity. It was a pivotal moment in the two-legged tie, with Guardiola all too aware of how deadly Madrid’s forwards can be on the break.

City became well acquainted with that destructive quality on Tuesday when Europe’s best sides locked horns again - the third year in a row the clubs have been paired together in the Champions League. Like the previous meetings, this was a back-and-forth, attacking contest, one in which both teams enjoyed spells on top.

For Madrid, their greatest threat came in transitional moments, typically with Vinicius and Rodrygo driving at the heart of City’s defence. The former provided two assists, managed three shots and his penetrative dribble resulted in Manuel Akanji being booked in the first half. The Swiss defender has rarely looked troubled since his switch to City two summers ago, but on Tuesday he found it tough to contain both Brazilians, with Rodrygo also producing three shots, one of which deflected past Stefan Ortega to hand Madrid a 14th-minute lead.

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It’s not hard to draw parallels with that moment and Walker’s interception last year, and the goal only highlighted just how keenly Walker’s absence is felt in this side and how pivotal he remains in this City set-up. Even at their indomitable best, Guardiola’s side are susceptible to opposition counters, but so often the rapid City skipper manages to sweep up and negate that danger. Without Walker at the Bernabeu, the Blues simply did not look assured at the back.

It’s no exaggeration to claim that had the injured Walker been fit, Rodrygo wouldn’t have put Madrid ahead inside the opening quarter of an hour. That’s not to criticise Akanji, who did well to get goal-side of the attacker again and hold up his advancing run, before the ball fortuitously ricocheted into the goal. But there’s not much defenders can do in a foot race with a quicker opponent, and only Walker has the attributes required to deal with such challenges.

Whether the former Tottenham Hotspur man will be back in time for next week’s return meeting at the Etihad remains unclear, but his inclusion would undeniably lessen Madrid’s attacking threat. Guardiola even acknowledged Walker’s impact ahead of the first leg, and said in his pre-match press conference that the England international is the ‘best player’ to control Vinicius, while after the game he claimed City’s inability to stop counter attacks was damaging.

“It’s so difficult against Madrid because they defend really well and the pace they have up front is unbelievable. Always you concede transitions against that team, it is impossible to control it,” explained the former Barcelona manager.

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Over the five meetings in the last two years, the numbers don’t lie. City have conceded a goal every 25 minutes against Madrid without Walker on the pitch, compared to once every 126 minutes when the Yorkshireman has been involved. It's simple: City need a fit Walker to stymie Los Blancos’ attack.

After a troubled season, in more ways than one, the 33-year-old’s most telling contribution on the campaign could be yet to come, if he is passed fit in time for next Wednesday’s Etihad decider. Walker has now missed four matches since sustaining a hamstring injury on international, with Guardiola remaining tight-lipped on the severity of the problem and when the right-back will return.

Amidst all the subplots, marginal moments and tactical tweaks going into the second leg, it could be the availability of Walker that ultimately decides whether City can overcome Madrid, go on to win the Champions League, and even record an unprecedented double treble.

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