The few eyebrows that were raised when Manchester City’s line-up against Real Madrid was revealed on Wednesday night probably increased after Pep Guardiola’s side’s setup in-play had been made out; Gabriel Jesus, a natural striker, was wide left, Riyad Mahrez was on the opposite side and Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne were central.
One question likely crossed critics’ minds: “Has Pep overthought this one again?”
The Manchester outfit were playing a 4-6-0 and hadn’t started well: Mahrez in particular was losing possession intermittently as the Citizens struggled to get to grips with the tactic and their hosts’ pressing.
It was disappointing for the Algerian star given he, alongside KDB, had gone into Wednesday’s game at the Santiago Bernabeu in really good form. Against old side Leicester City on Saturday, he’d travelled 50 yards of the King Power Stadium grass before playing in Jesus for the 1-0 win; here he looked laboured in possession and seemed to be struggling against Zinedine Zidane's side.
Admittedly, City grew into the game as the first-half wore on and seized the initiative somewhat in the latter stages of the half, but Mahrez still wasn’t influencing the game as much as he will have liked.
However, something happened at half-time that jolted the wideman to life in Madrid.
It would have been fascinating to know what Guardiola said to his side during the interval, such was their front-foot start after the break, led by a Mahrez who’d been average in the opening half.
It took only four minutes after the restart for the former Leicester man to come to life: in 49th minute after Casemiro carelessly gave the ball away on half-way, De Bruyne broke forward at pace and played in Mahrez who had only one thought on his mind; to cut inside to his stronger left foot and shoot at goal. It was a good idea, but the execution was off-kilter, and the ball drifted wide, off target.
However, he wasn’t done; in the 54th minute, after deceiving Ferland Mendy with a twist and turn, the City wideman stung the palms of Thibaut Courtois, before extending the Belgian shot-stopper who made a fine save down to his right only a couple of minutes later…it was becoming the Mahrez vs Courtois show.
While the end product was still lacking, the Algeria international had clearly raised his game after the break and was playing on a different level from the opening 45 minutes. That sort of improvement in performance sends a message to your teammates and the key protagonists subsequently took charge.
Los Blancos may have punished a City mistake on the hour, which led to a 10-minute spell in which Zidane’s side grew in confidence and Pep’s side wobbled.
The former Barcelona boss responded by introducing the returning Raheem Sterling in the 73rd minute as the away side moved their Brazilian striker back into his more natural position, with the England international and Mahrez either side.
Five minutes later, De Bruyne crossed for Jesus to head home with aplomb for 1-1…and it was deserved.
Barely a minute after the restart, Mahrez created a presentable opportunity for the striker who failed to convert another header in the space of two minutes.
Be that as it may, the away side weren’t to be denied, and De Bruyne netted a penalty with seven minutes of normal time to play to give the visitors a deserved 2-1 win.
Mahrez didn’t score or assist in Madrid, but his upturn in performance set the tone for that second-half where City swarmed all over their hosts.
He completed two of his attempted dribbles, created two chances, which included a clear-cut opportunity for Jesus right after he had levelled, and played four shots (joint-highest with the South American frontman) with every attempt coming after half-time.
Furthermore, the right winger won three fouls for the side – joint-second behind Ilkay Gundogan who was fouled four times – won two tackles and made as many interceptions on the night.
"Mahrez underlined why he is becoming such a key player to Pep Guardiola’s system with his intelligent movement and flashes of individual brilliance," says Goal's Manchester City correspondent Jonathan Smith. "He was one of Manchester City’s biggest attacking threats on an historic night for the club."
Undoubtedly, the North African didn’t trouble the stats that really matter, but his impact on the night was substantial nonetheless as the Citizens inflicted Los Merengues’ third home defeat in the Champions League in their last six at the Bernabeu.
With the job only half done, Pep will need Mahrez firing from the off in the reverse fixture at the Etihad, as they seek to knock out Zidane’s Whites and continue the arduous march towards their Holy Grail.