Real versus City: the biggest rivalry booming in club football now?

It’s reflection of a clash between Spanish aristocrats of the game and a fund-flush modern behemoth

Real Madrid players after winning the shootout last night (photo: Getty Images)
Real Madrid players after winning the shootout last night (photo: Getty Images)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

The morning after, the Real Madrid and Manchester City fans must have woken up with hugely contrasting emotions. For Real, it was a redemption after their 4-0 rout in the UEFA Champions League semi-final last year though not with the flourish they would have liked, while City will have to wait for another opportunity to emulate the Los Blancos’ feat of multiple back-to-back European crowns.

Yet, one thing is quite clear after their epic quarter final clash which ended 1-1 before being decided on a shootout last night – the face-off between these two teams has become the biggest rivalry in European football. Be it the class, intensity or the scale of expectations among the fans of the game globally, it has now left the El Clasico of Spanish football or the Manchester Derby far behind.     

The match-up has not quite happened overnight. Ever since City established themselves among English football’s elite since Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the UAE began to transform the club in 2008 after his takeover, the ultimate goal for the team with Etihad branding on their shirts had been to win the battle of Europe. After quite a few so-year-yet-so-far cases, the Premier League champions finally kept their date with the crown last year.

No patch really on the Real, the football aristocrats from Spain who have won it a record 14 times, but the frequent high voltage clashes between these two in recent times has created the template for a old versus new contest.   The past five years have seen them being drawn four times over two-legged knockout ties, and the clashes have lived up to it’s billing.

Laced with tons of goals – an average of 4.3 per game – and iconic subplots, it’s been the showcase of some of the finest talents in modern football, on the pitch and the sideline. Carlo Ancelotti, the man with the magic touch, had proclaimed a hugely entertaining game ahead of Wednesday, but one ensued was a tactical battle on their part where they continued to soak the pressure over 120 minutes to be in with a chance in the shootout. ‘’This was about survival. Madrid is a club based on always fighting to stay in situations where there seems to be no way out - but we always find a way,’’ the Italian said later.

Back to the old versus new storyline. If Real had been the traditional powerhouses of Europe, the fund-flush City are modern-day behemoths, whose spending prowess have often invited the scanner of financial fairplay rules of the UEFA. There is also the history and ownership background that differentiates the two – while Real were linked to the Spanish monarchy in the early 20th century, a nation-state team, City have been typecast as an outfit benefitting from the so called oil money. In a more-or-less closed football ecosystem at the top club level, it’s unique among the more traditional rivalries in football.

This round then belonged to Real, but City now have a Premier League title to win and an FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea at Wembley on Saturday. Injuries and fatigue will be the major worry for Pep Guardiola, who saw Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne limp off with fitness concerns that could make City vulnerable against Mauricio Pochettino’s team and result in another tournament exit within a week.

Even if they lose at Wembley, nothing will sting as much as their Champions League failure. However, there will be a next time round the corner soon enough!

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