One of the most notable features of a visit to the Santiago Bernabeu is the sheer throng outside the stadium. As the Madridistas wait for the team bus to arrive, it can be almost impossible to take a step forward.
That was what it was like back in February when Manchester City were there. Now it is very different everywhere.
On Friday night in Manchester, the Champions League resumes and it is hard not to think about what this occasion could have been like. Pep Guardiola’s City team have a chance to take the biggest European scalp of all, that of the 13-time winners. They will have to do it on their own, though.
Manchester City will host Real Madrid on Friday night but the stands will be deserted
Sergio Ramos, who is suspended, and Marcelo travel over to Manchester on Thursday
Guardiola is used to it by now. This is City’s 13th game without supporters since football restarted in England but beyond any doubt it will be the one when they are in danger of feeling that absence most.
Football without supporters does many things. It reminds us all just how real and persistent the threat of Covid-19 remains.
Wander down the high street — even in lockdown Manchester —and it’s quite possible to forget about the pandemic.
It is not possible at the football. Walking in to City’s stadium can feel like walking in to a hospital at the moment.
Pep Guardiola got the better of opposite number Zinedine Zidane more than five months ago
From a sporting point of view, meanwhile, empty stadia level the playing field. The statistics tell us as much and so, over the course of the last couple of months, have our own eyes.
The absence of fans can hurt a home side and this is the fear which stalks City tonight. As Real’s French defender Rafael Varane said on Thursday night: ‘We are on City’s ground but the Champions League is all about emotion and the fans provide that extra bit of edge. It can be an important factor.’
Guardiola and his players are facing a very good side on Friday night, even if it is weakened by the suspension of defender Sergio Ramos.
Madrid were better than City for the first hour of what was a poor game back in late winter and if they are allowed to impose themselves like that tonight, this could be a more difficult task than many imagine.
City’s away goals give them comfort. If they score once more, Real will need to shed any notion of caution and chase the game almost recklessly. Maybe it is this factor which has decided Guardiola’s strategy for him.
‘We’ve talked of how we can hurt them,’ said Guardiola on Thursday. ‘That’s what we have focused on.
‘We want to impose our style on the game and take it to areas where we can hurt them, where our quality can stand out.’
If his players can carry out Guardiola’s instructions we should be in for a better game than the one we got in Madrid.
Kevin De Bruyne’s late penalty completed a turnaround for City at the Bernabeu in February
City downed Zinedine Zidane’s team brilliantly at the death with two late goals following the introduction of Raheem Sterling as a substitute. Prior to that, Madrid has wasted opportunities to take their one-goal lead to two and maybe three.
Spanish champions again, Madrid come to Manchester with reputation intact.
Zidane’s treatment of Gareth Bale continues to baffle many people, as does Hazard’s inability to ever be fit. Problems like this tend to get buried when you have only lost three games of 38 en route to your 34th league title, so it was strange that Zidane chose Thursday of all days to publicly throw Bale under the bus.
‘What happens in the dressing room stays in the dressing room,’ said Zidane, only moments after deliberately betraying that most ancient of sporting creeds.
Bale’s time in Zidane’s team is clearly done but Hazard’s participation tonight is less clear.
Having struggled with an ankle injury all season, the Belgian has not featured consistently. Zidane insists he is fit but it would be a surprise if the 29-year-old began the night anywhere more prominent than the bench.
Such uncertainty and rancour in the Madrid ranks will not discourage City — not that they would appear to lack confidence anyway.
Their Spanish midfielder Rodri said: ‘I know we have the better team but we have to show it. It’s worthless to think that, if we can’t do it on the pitch.’
City’s attacking football was consistently excellent following the restart of the Premier League and it’s worth remembering that they amassed 100 goals while coming second to Liverpool.
City’s attacking players were on excellent form during the recent Premier League restart
They will miss Sergio Aguero on Friday — there remains no news on a comeback date — and this will be as big a night for the Brazilian forward Gabriel Jesus as it will be for Guardiola’s often inadequate back four.
If City do prevail, it would be onward to Lisbon and the final stages of a competition that remains of fundamental importance to Guardiola and his sense of self-worth.
The field would be wide open. There may be nobody there to witness it, but this feels like one of the most important nights of City’s recent history.