Big-game Ilkay Gundogan showing Man City what they’re missing at Barcelona


The Germany midfielder was a driving force behind Barca’s win against Atletico Madrid, while Pep Guardiola’s side aren’t the same without him

You could highlight several key players in Barcelona’s 1-0 triumph over Atletico Madrid. Most will point to the virtuosic efforts of Joao Felix, who netted the winner and turned in his best performance in Catalan colours against his parent club. Others might highlight Ronald Araujo, who handled the in-form Alvaro Morata, and won all six of his aerial duels. There is also a case to be made for the floaty Frenkie de Jong, dynamic Raphinha, or clutch Inaki Pena.

But perhaps the most impactful individual over the course of 90-plus minutes was the one who always seems to show up in big games. Indeed, that Ilkay Gundogan embraced the spotlight once again is of little surprise.

Gundogan was magnificent on Sunday. He amassed the most touches on the pitch, completed 89 percent of his passes, and played more key passes than anyone else. And, more broadly, he served as the driving force of a Barca midfield unit that was neither fazed nor out-muscled by a physical Atleti bunch.

Four hours earlier, and nearly 900 miles away, his former team had toiled without him. Manchester City will perhaps feel that they should have won against Tottenham, and that a 3-3 draw wasn’t indicative of the chances they created, passages of play they pieced together, or defensive efforts. Those arguments certainly have some weight, but they also undoubtedly missed their former captain, as they lacked that bit of composure in central areas that has proved so valuable to them in recent years.

Here was a tale of two teams, both facing games of similar magnitude. One flourished thanks to a graceful midfield presence, while another is still adjusting to life without that same player. The contrasting results, then, should be of little surprise.

Barcelona are so much better with Gundogan, and City — especially on days like Sunday — are so much worse without him.]

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Last season, Erling Haaland broke pretty much every single-season goalscoring record in the Premier League. His banged in 36 league goals, bettering Mo Salah’s 32 from five years ago. He netted 52 in all competitions, eclipsing the 44 that Ruud van Nistelrooy and Salah both bagged. He scored more goals than Everton and Wolves, while equalling Southampton’s total. He also became the first player in Premier League history to score hat-tricks in three straight home games.

Put simply, Haaland was the single player that took Man City from perennial Premier League champions to history-making treble winners.

But in April, the goals dried up. Haaland missed an occasional chance, and had

the pure audacity to go four games without scoring. In his slump, Gundogan stepped up. He wasn’t a formidable attacking force of Haaland’s mould, but instead popped up in the spaces that the Norwegian striker left open.

When opponents doubled-up on marking Haaland, Gundogan arrived in the areas where the defenders weren’t. He timed his runs, ghosted into pockets, and, perhaps most importantly, finished his chances. He ended the season with 11 goals in all competitions – a decent return, but it was the importance of his strikes that really separates Gundogan.

He netted back-to-back braces against Leeds United and Everton in the run-in as City surged past Arsenal to win their third successive league title, and Gundogan backed that up with another double in the FA Cup final win over Manchester United.

This is not a new trend, either, as Gundogan has developed a habit of scoring important goals. It was his brace against Aston Villa on the final day of the
2021-22 season that turned the game on its head and secured an epic come-from-behind win. When everyone else goes missing, Gundogan always seems to appear.


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