Big Midweek: Real Madrid v Man City, big-game Bukayo Saka, Xavi, Bayer Leverkusen

Will Ford
It's a Big Midweek in Europe.
It's a Big Midweek in Europe.

Real Madrid v Manchester City is obviously the tie of this Big Midweek, but big-game Bukayo Saka, Xavi and Bayer Leverkusen offer more than intriguing plot lines in Europe, as the Championship title race continues.


Game to watch: Real Madrid v Manchester City
The reigning champions against the 14-time winners. You couldn’t wish for a bigger game of football.

Manchester City have the superior record. They’ve won four, lost three and drawn three against Real Madrid in a history that dates all the way back to 2012, when a 90th-minute Cristiano Ronaldo goal secured a 3-2 win for Jose Mourinho’s Madrid over Roberto Mancini’s City.

After a 1-1 draw in Madrid last season, City cruised to a 4-0 win at the Etihad. Carlo Ancelotti said this week that it was game in which his team “played without personality and courage”, and perhaps more significantly, without the ball for the vast majority of it.

The big difference between now and then is Jude Bellingham, who snubbed Guardiola and City for Madrid in the summer, and has four goals and four assists in six Champions League games this season. His talents will be tested against the world’s best in Rodri, while Kyle Walker’s absence gives Guardiola a right-back dilemma, with Vinicius Junior offering quite the challenge for Rico Lewis if he retains his spot.

Much to Pep Guardiola’s frustration, Ancelotti’s side have enjoyed a nine-day break ahead of the clash at the Bernabeu, in which time City have beaten both Aston Villa and Crystal Palace. But Erling Haaland, Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva have all played just one of those games, and levels of rest are rendered insignificant in games of this magnitude, with rhythm far more crucial to the outcome.

City haven’t lost since December 6, while Madrid have lost just twice all season. They’re both in rhythm; something’s got to give.


Manager to watch: Xavi
Since Xavi announced he would leave Barcelona at the end of the season his side have seen off Napoli in the Champions League to reach the quarter-finals and are unbeaten in La Liga, winning seven of their nine games. There have been reports of a dramatic U-turn and sensational transfer demands on the back of the turnaround, and despite Xavi insisting “I wouldn’t change my decision even if I won the Champions League”, the pressure that’s been relieved, both on him and his players, as a result of his announcement has got to make you wonder whether it was all a ruse.

The Catalans remain a flawed side despite the upturn in results, with Xavi’s use of former Chelsea centre-back Andreas Christensen as the holding midfielder in the two legs against Napoli testament to that. But La Masia graduates Fermin Lopez and Lamine Yamal offer even greater hope for a future which already looked bright thanks to Pedri and Gavi.

They won’t win the Champions League. But a tie against renowned flakes Paris Saint-Germain offers the opportunity of a significant scalp for Xavi, who won’t be short of offers from elsewhere if he is true to his word and leaves Barcelona at the end of the season. Liverpool are apparently interested.


Team to watch: Bayer Leverkusen
Far more English football fans will be tuning into West Ham’s game on Thursday to watch their opponents rather than David Moyes’ side. Having seen off Dusseldorf in the DFB-Polkal semi-final on Wednesday to keep them on course for the treble, Bayer Leverkusen produced yet another dramatic comeback against Hoffenheim on Saturday to retain their unbeaten record.

With second-tier Kaiserlautern to come in the cup final and just two points required to win the Bundesliga title, it likely falls on the Hammers, or Leverkusen’s subsequent Europa League opponents, to deny them a treble all football writers are required to describe as historic.

It would be though. In claiming three gongs in one season, Xabi Alonso will double the trophies the club has won in its history. It’s no wonder he’s such a coveted manager, and also no great surprise that having built such an extraordinary team, he’s decided to snub the advances of Liverpool and Bayern Munich to remain there for at least another season.


Player to watch: Bukayo Saka
Now only shy of Theo Walcott (17) and Olivier Giroud (13) with 11 Premier League goals against the Big Six, Bukayo Saka is Arsenal’s big-game player. He got three goals and four assists in five group stage games and converted his penalty in the shoot-out win over Porto. The concern ahead of the visit of Bayern Munich on Tuesday isn’t Saka’s ability, but his fitness.

Having pulled out of the England squad last month, Saka missed the win over Luton on Wednesday with a muscle injury, but was rushed back to face Brighton on Saturday. “I was struggling,” Saka said after the game. “But as long as I have two legs I will give everything – I want to be on the pitch.”

It shouldn’t be his call, and Mikel Arteta has been criticised for his use of Saka, who played 48 of their 49 games last season, and is on course to play more this term. But it’s understandable.

Arsenal without Saka often doesn’t feel or look very much like Arsenal, and though this Bayern side are inconsistent at best, if they perform at a level befitting the players Thomas Tuchel has at his disposal, Mikel Arteta will need his difference-makers, and Saka has proven time and again that he’s that guy.

Arsenal vs Brighton
Bukayo Saka is Arsenal’s big-game player.


EFL game to watch: Leeds v Sunderland
While one point separates the trio at the top of the Premier League, the Championship title race is relatively humdrum with two points between Leicester at the summit and Leeds in third.

Leicester beat Birmingham last time out, while Ipswich lost the Old Farm derby to Norwich and Leeds lost to Coventry – rivalries which could be reignited in the play-offs for either of those sides, who will finish the season close to the 100-point mark but will inevitably lose to the sixth-placed side at Wembley. We don’t make the rules.

Jobe Bellingham scored the winner in the return fixture at the Stadium of Light in December, and Leeds boss Daniel Farke is wary of opposition teams feeling like “every game is a cup game” against his side despite mid-table Sunderland not having much to play for. “I’m at my best when the sea is getting rough,” Farke added, ahead of a round of fixtures which could see them one point clear at the top or four points off automatic promotion with Leicester away at Millwall and Ipswich at home against Watford. Rough seas indeed.

READ: Championship winners and losers