Six years ago, Manchester City hosted Real Madrid in the first leg of a Champions League semi-final. It marked a new frontier for City, the furthest they had reached at that stage of their rise in club football’s most prestigious competition.
Facing the most decorated club in European Cup history, there was some caution in the then manager Manuel Pellegrini’s approach.
He picked two holding midfielders, the Brazilians who always sounded like they ought to be a perfect complement, Fernando and Fernandinho. Kevin de Bruyne played just ahead of them.
No prizes for guessing who that trio were directly facing. Different head coaches at Madrid may come and go, but for high-stakes matches the automatic impulse, if every midfielder is fit, has been the same for half a dozen years: Luka Modric, Casemiro and Toni Kroos will patrol the middle of the pitch.
A Fernando own goal, deflecting a Gareth Bale shot, would decide that 2016 semi-final in the Spain leg, and usher Madrid to the second of what turned out to be four winning European Cup finals in the space of five seasons, and the first of three in which Kroos, Modric and Casemiro were all involved.
Kroos had joined the club in the summer of 2014, just after winning the World Cup with Germany; Casemiro had spent the 2014-15 season gaining experience with Porto, but once the trio were in harness they quickly established that their individual talents made for an excellent balance.
Kroos offered his dead-ball expertise, his sharp eye for a pass, Casemiro his fine positional sense, combative character and a rapidly developing instinct for where the fine line lies between a tackle that risks a yellow card and a challenge that will earn only a stern look from a referee.
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Of Modric, the catalogue of skills grows and grows, even into his 37th year. Without the Croatian, galvaniser of Madrid’s stunning comeback in the last-16 phase against Paris Saint-Germain, provider of the exquisite outside-of-the-boot pass that invited Rodrygo to keep Madrid in the see-saw quarter-final against Chelsea, the Spanish giants would not be in Manchester this evening.
“When they are working well together, Madrid can achieve anything,” says Jorge Valdano, the former Madrid head coach and director of football. “The players in front of them know they will be looked after.”
Over his two spells as head coach of Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti has time and again felt blessed at the longevity of his first-choice midfield trio. But he is wise enough to know the telepathy between them cannot last forever.
Casemiro is 30, the youngest of the fabled threesome, but perhaps the one looking closer to the point in his career where he becomes less agile, less adept at providing an impenetrable shield in front of the defence.
Ancelotti gave Casemiro, then aged 21 and not long arrived from his native Sao Paulo, his Champions League debut. He was head coach when Kroos signed from Bayern Munich. Ancelotti was also on the touchline when Modric, Kroos and Casemiro shared a pitch for the first time.
So was Pep Guardiola, the City manager, on what turned out to be a tactical and technical triumph for the Italian over the Catalan. It was the first meeting as coaches of the illustrious former Italy and AC Milan midfielder and the cerebral former midfielder of Spain and Barcelona.
It was, just like it will be on Tuesday, a Champions League semi-final. The home team were Guardiola’s Bayern Munich; the visitors, already 1-0 up from the first leg, were Madrid.
Kroos was still at Bayern, and that 2014 night he was in a midfield that, very usually for a Guardiola-managed side, was out-manoeuvered and at times over-run. Modric set up the first goal in a thrashing of Bayern on the German side’s own turf. A young Casemiro came on to secure a clean sheet, with the aggregate score already 5-0.
“That 4-0 will always be in my head,” said Guardiola ruefully. It may just play on his mind ahead of Tuesday's contest, too, if and when he sees Madrid’s three timeless midfield musketeers lining up together yet again.