Man City face unthinkable Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne decision they don't want to make

-Credit:2024 Marc Atkins
-Credit:2024 Marc Atkins

Manchester City needed to find a goal against 'Kings of Europe' Real Madrid on Wednesday night. So they took off Erling Haaland.

And in extra time with penalties looming, City took off goalscorer Kevin De Bruyne - one of their better spot kick takers.

Pep Guardiola revealed post-match that both players requested to come off, raising doubts over fitness concerns ahead of the FA Cup semi-final with Chelsea at the very least. Perhaps more alarming, though, both substitutions were arguably the right call to make.

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Haaland had again struggled to influence the game against Madrid. He was unfortunate to see a clever header come back off the post, but was largely kept out of danger by Antonio Rudiger for the second time in a week.

In City's four clashes with Madrid in the last two seasons, Haaland has played all four, playing 90 minutes in three and 89 in the other. He has no goals and no assists - which will encourage the lazy opinions over his overall contribution to City in big games.

In his last nine games for club and country, Haaland has just two goals, and only one from open play. He remains the joint top goalscorer in the Premier League and has topped 30 goals for the season, however he isn't as prolific as the high-standards he has set himself.

Any fan who actually watches City will recognise how Real deployed two centre-backs on him which freed up space for others. It worked a treat in Madrid last week, but with Real sitting deeper than they normally would at the Etihad, there was no space for anybody - even if City recorded more touches in the Madrid box than any other side in the Champions League knockouts.

As a result, Haaland had another quiet game. As Guardiola prepared for extra time, it was a surprise that Haaland went off, but he wasn't untouchable anymore after the previous 90 minutes. Even if Haaland hadn't asked to go off, Guardiola may have made that decision for him.

De Bruyne, too, was not the controversial substitution it may have been in the past. Despite his goal to force extra time, this wasn't a vintage De Bruyne performance - there were loose touches, poor deliveries and wayward shots. As Guardiola said previously, De Bruyne and Haaland might not help City play better, but they "help us to win games".

At Crystal Palace, De Bruyne wasn't great but scored twice and assisted Haaland, earning praise from Guardiola for single-handedly winning the game. His goal was vital against Madrid, but he still feels like he is looking for his best form after returning from injury.

With Phil Foden excelling at number ten when De Bruyne is not in the side, it raises a very real possibility that City could go into a game without De Bruyne or Haaland when they are available and fit. They looked better against Madrid when Foden was shifted inside to play alongside De Bruyne in the second half.

Guardiola will give both time to return to fitness and their best form - and maybe the turnaround between the Champions League and FA Cup semi-final on Saturday will enforce that decision.

But if it was a case of taking a step back by taking them out of the team, to bring them back in fully firing for the run-in, it could be a necessary decision despite the short-term headlines it may encourage. Even the two best players in the squad shouldn't be immune from dropping to the bench if they aren't performing.