Top Winners and Losers After Wednesday's Champions League Round-of-16 Results

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistFebruary 26, 2020

Manchester City's Spanish manager Pep Guardiola gestures during the UEFA Champions League round of 16 first-leg football match between Real Madrid CF and Manchester City at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on February 26, 2020. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO / AFP) (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO/AFP via Getty Images)
JAVIER SORIANO/Getty Images

Pep Guardiola's blueprints are just different to those the rest of us are reading from. The Manchester City boss sprung a tactical surprise of epic, eyebrow-raising and head-scratching proportions against Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League last-16 first leg on Wednesday night.

Yet no matter how unorthodox City's Sergio Aguero-less formation, with other star names thrust into alien roles, appeared to the untrained eye, Guardiola's tactics were vindicated. The Citizens left the Santiago Bernabeu with a 2-1 win and a vital platform to ensure progress into the next round.

Real were soundly beaten because City managed to expose a creaking defence where 33-year-old Sergio Ramos has been allowed to remain the beating heart for too long. The skipper was sent off four minutes from time to complete a miserable night.

If Real have any hope of turning things around in the second leg at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday, March 17, it comes from the performance of Vinicius Junior. The 19-year-old Brazilian wowed the otherwise frustrated home fans with his pace and tricks, qualities City right-back Kyle Walker found less entertaining.

Speaking of a miserable night for Champions League royalty, Cristiano Ronaldo endured one to forget when Juventus lost 1-0 in Lyon. Denied decent serve from a totally outplayed midfield undermined by Miralem Pjanic's drab performance, Ronaldo barely made a dent in the Lyon defence.

             

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Wednesday Scores

  • Real Madrid 1-2 Manchester City
  • Lyon 1-0 Juventus

         

Winner: Pep Guardiola' Tactics

Having his approach to marquee European ties questioned by Thomas Muller obviously motivated Guardiola to come up with something special. His answer was a creative use of personnel that deployed striker Gabriel Jesus on the left wing while midfield playmakers Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva operated further forward:

With Riyad Mahrez on the right wing, City had a traditional but interchangeable shape, with its rotations defined by fluid movement from De Bruyne, Silva and Jesus. Without the ball this was a classic 4-4-2, with dual pressers at the front and two rigid banks of four behind them.

Real were unable to break this block because Luka Modric couldn't find gaps to thread his passes through. Meanwhile, the set midfield barrier enabled City to put two centre-backs around lone striker Karim Benzema and render the Frenchman moot.

Even after Aymeric Laporte went off injured and Fernandinho entered the fray to resume his makeshift role as an auxiliary central defender, City stayed in shape and stood firm.

The most impressive aspect of Guardiola's plan was how many of his players responded to the extra responsibilities created by their new positions. De Bruyne and Silva never tired from denying Ramos and Co. the time to play out from the back, nor from making runs through the middle to act as strikers.

Jesus was City's only natural centre-forward on the pitch, but the No. 9 didn't shy away from putting in a shift on the flank.

His industry was rewarded with the equaliser, headed in on 78 minutes, as well as winning the foul that saw Ramos dismissed. In between, De Bruyne stuck away the penalty substitute Raheem Sterling had won from Dani Carvajal to complete a memorable European adventure for City.

The real hero was Guardiola, who would have been made to look foolish if his strategic gamble had backfired. Instead, his tactical nuances could prove to be City's best weapon in the quest to lift this trophy with a UEFA ban looming.

         

Loser: Sergio Ramos

There's no arguing with Ramos' pedigree in this tournament. He's won four trophies and been a rock for Real in numerous big games.

However, there comes at time when even the most battle-hardened player begins to feel time catching up. Ramos' time may be now after he was exposed over and over again by City's superior fitness, tactical acumen and intensity.

It was telling both of those low moments for Ramos came when Jesus moved centrally after Sterling was introduced for Silva in the 73rd minute. The Brazilian's pace and timing made Ramos look every year of his age, most notably when Jesus wriggled free and the veteran was left with little choice but to trip the forward on the edge of the box.

Red cards are nothing new for Ramos at his level:

Even so, this one felt different. It felt like the beginning of the end for one of the most successful players of the modern era.

If Real are sent packing, refreshing the middle of the defence has to be the priority this summer.

       

Winner: Vinicius Junior

Emerging as a winner on a losing team is never easy, but Vinicius managed it. That he merits such praise despite an embarrassing slip when faced with a tap-in during the first half, speaks volumes about the rest of the winger's game.

His display packed in artistry, improv and awesome athleticism.

The latter quality was embodied by the way Vinicius repeatedly ran Walker ragged. He's no slouch in the pace department, but Walker needed all the help he could get to keep Vinicius under wraps.

Help arrived in the form of Mahrez, a player hardly known for a desire to track back and get stuck in. Yet Vinicius' threat was enough to turn Mahrez into a makeshift defender, but the teenager still managed to tee up Isco's goal to help keep the tie alive.

Real lost the magic in attack when Ronaldo moved to Turin in 2018, but Vinicius can add the flourish Zinedine Zidane's team has been missing.

        

Loser: Miralem Pjanic

Ronaldo hardly sparkled in France, but he could be forgiven for pointing the finger of blame at those required to provide him with chances. Specifically, Pjanic was one step behind the rhythm of the game before being substituted for Aaron Ramsey two minutes after the hour mark.

Pjanic couldn't find the right passes, while his touch, timing and technique were all off, leaving Ronaldo's runs wasted. The 29-year-old is a gifted flair player astute enough to unlock any defence when at his best.

Unfortunately, his recent displays have some wishing the set-piece specialist could be used selectively:

Ironically, Ronaldo's insistence on prolonging a dire run in this area is making Pjanic's core skill irrelevant:

Maybe it's Ronaldo's way of getting revenge for Pjanic's lack of creativity.