Manchester City take a 2-1 lead into its Champions League last 16 match against Real Madrid at the Etihad Stadium on Friday but manager Pep Guardiola needs no reminders of how quickly games can turn in Europe's elite competition.
In last year's quarterfinals City went out on away goals to Tottenham Hotspur after looking in command when 4-2 up in the second leg.
The previous year, City was blitzed by three Liverpool goals inside 19 first-half minutes as it fell to a 5-1 aggregate defeat.
Guardiola's first campaign with City in the Champions League ended in the last 16 when it threw away a 5-3 first-leg advantage over Monaco with a 3-1 defeat in the principality.
In each of those games there were periods when City lost its grip on the game, its possession football and attacking creativity undone by sloppy defending and a loss of focus.
“This competition punishes you a lot,” Guardiola told a news conference on Thursday.
“We know it, we have spoken about that the last years and we know it. If we want to make a step forward as a team to be close to winning this competition we have to be better in this area,” he said.
Much has changed since the first-leg against Real on February 26, when City triumphed thanks to late goals from Gabriel Jesus and Kevin De Bruyne (penalty).
Zinedine Zidane's side came back after the lockdown to clinch the Spanish league title with a run of 10 straight wins and it has had time to recover after drawing its final game of the season at Leganes on July 19.
Guardiola and his team studied Real, record 13-times European champion, closely during its domestic return but the former Barcelona manager isn't sure that will help him a great deal.
“When you think that you've got one of his tactical plans covered hell hit you with another or revert. It is already very difficult to analyse tactics. In the dim and distant past we played the first leg and what we can remember from that we will put to good use,” he said.
“Since then, we've watched all Madrids games since La Liga restarted so we've spoken about how we think Madrid might approach this game, but what we have done more is speak as a squad about how we can hurt Madrid and cause problems for them. That is what we've been focusing on in the buildup to this game,” he said.
Guardiola was giving little away but hinted his side is unlikely to adopt a cautious approach to defending its lead.
“We want to impose our own style, whether we are defending or playing on the counter or Madrid are countering. We want to take the game to certain areas of the field where we can hurt Madrid and show the qualities of our players”.
Another chance for Hazard
A lesser Madrid might have been looking to Hazard for inspiration as they try to shock Guardiola's side and reach the quarterfinals.
“We know we have to go there and win,” said Zinedine Zidane after the first leg.
Back in England, where he forged his reputation as one of the world's most lethal attackers, and up against arguably the favourites to win the tournament, the stage is set again for Hazard to rescue what has been a nightmare opening year in Spain.
Yet few are billing this as a duel between Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne, Belgium's two brightest talents, or tieing Madrid's progress to the mast of a decisive Hazard intervention, the like of which Madrid's fans are yet to witness this season.
“We know the team wins with Eden,” said Zidane in February. “That's why we signed him, he's a great player.”
But the team has won without him too. The reality is Madrid has learned not to miss the player it signed for 100 million euros last year and who said at his unveiling at the Santiago Bernabeu he wanted to become the club's next Galactico.
There is still time, but Hazard's Madrid career so far has been a series of setbacks and comebacks, with only glimpses in between of those mazey runs, surges of acceleration or goals. In 21 appearances, Hazard has scored only once this season.
He may not be fully fit on Friday given the 11 games since La Liga resumed saw Hazard start some games, come off early in others and miss a handful altogether.
He was absent from the pictures published by the club on Wednesday of the morning's training session at Valdebebas.
Zidane has been vague on the 29-year-old's fitness issues but what is clear is the operation in March does not appear to have completely fixed his troublesome right ankle.
When he has been fit enough to play, Hazard has struck an unmissable chemistry with Karim Benzema and their promising partnership could wreak havoc in City's creaky backline or, further ahead, take Madrid to another level next term.
Zidane has led the transformation of this team and he maintains complete faith, at least in public, that Hazard will come good at Madrid eventually. For now at least, it is more hope than expectation.
With inputs from AFP
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