Madrid’s Bellingham poised to make difference vs. Man City

I don’t think that this is particularly widely known or properly understood, but Jude Bellingham was always “scheduled” to be playing in the Champions League quarterfinal second leg at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday. Only it was supposed to be for Manchester City against Real Madrid instead of Bellingham traveling to England’s north-west with Spain’s champions-elect this week.

It was January last year that I had coffee with an unimpeachable Manchester City source who, when pushed and prompted, admitted that while City might do some ancillary trading during summer 2023, there were only two absolute “must-buy” targets — Joško Gvardiol and Bellingham.

One said yes, Gvardiol, and one said no: Jude the dude. Any club, no matter how behemoth, can be forced to feel the sting of rejection. Top players have a range of options, it’s most definitely a seller’s market — no matter your club history or wealth, it’s quite feasible to miss out on a transfer-market objective.

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But even once you set aside City’s willingness to pay their principal targets stunning salaries, the concept of a young, talented and ambitious Englishman rejecting the offer to work and learn under Pep Guardiola and be likely to win a minimum of two trophies in his first season is pretty extraordinary. By the summer of 2023, Guardiola had been in charge for seven years and had won 14 trophies — an average of two per season.

What transpired, and I feel infinitesimally responsible here, was that Bellingham had already decided, even prior to Guardiola letting him know how important he could be to City, that if there were any possibility of swapping Borussia Dortmund for Madrid then he was, without any question, going to prioritise Los Blancos above any team in the world.

Responsibility? Well, during the period Spanish soccer was becoming the best, most thrilling, most winning, most technically advanced and intriguing football on the planet, I was fortunate enough to work as a part of Sky Sports LaLiga coverage in the UK — a steady 21-year stream of live matches from 1997 onwards, plus what I reckon was a superb weekly magazine show called “Revista De la Liga.”

I recall, during that golden era, regularly telling people (fans, media and plenty in the football industry) that I firmly anticipated this stream of exceptional, well-analysed football flowing into homes all over the UK for 21 years would fundamentally inspire and alter how fans, coaches, players and media thought and talked about the sport we loved. I believed that LaLiga would have a seismic influence. Big ripples in the pond.

The first interview I had with Bellingham this season was just after Madrid beat Union Berlin 1-0 in their Group C match when the Englishman, in his Champions League debut for the 14-times European champions, scored the winner in the 94th minute. It had been dramatic, and a glorious moment for a 20-year-old only a month into his first season at the Bernabéu.

He told me that “since I was a kid” he’d had a TV in his room, on which he’d seen “Madrid innumerable times produce comebacks in situations where you’re saying ‘there’s no way they’ll turn this around!'” The Sky Sports LaLiga effect. That improbably late win over Berlin was, specifically, the very thing he’d been inspired by. That, specifically, was the very thing he’d chosen to sign for Madrid to do.

Bellingham, like Gareth Bale before him, had been wholly seduced by the magic of Real Madrid’s history — the European domination, the battles with Barcelona, the iconic white shirts, the constant array of all-time great footballers who’ve been on Los Blancos‘ books. Seduced by the chance to write his own name in that history. You can easily imagine.

So, now, here we are. Madrid need to beat City in their HQ and then they have to cope with Barcelona in the Clasico on Sunday (stream LIVE from 2 p.m. ET on ESPN+). Precisely the hyper-important, potentially historic moments Bellingham joined this club in order to influence. And they’ve arrived in Manchester just when his energy and sharpness have hit a little bit of a trough.

Very few top athletes or coaches will admit to motives above and beyond winning a crucial match, medal or final — but they’re human beings. The pasta is important but the sauce adds flavour, don’t ever let them kid you it’s not so. In other words, Bellingham — along with Toni Kroos, Vinícius Júnior, Eduardo Camavinga, Antonio Rüdiger and others — have a driving purpose about them this week: to eliminate the European champions and proceed to the semifinal. But that’s not all, and anyone who says it is is lying.

Whether consciously or subconsciously, Bellingham will feel the desire to prove to Guardiola, City’s director of football Txiki Begiristain, his England teammates Phil Foden and Kyle Walker and, probably most of all, himself, that not only was he right to choose Madrid over the English champions but that he can demonstrate it in Manchester at City HQ.

The 20-year-old has been simply stunning this season — when he joined Madrid I told LaLiga TV that a phenomenon had landed and I think that’s been proven 10 times over. To change culture and language and climate, to play in the most hot-house, political, quixotic club in the world, to not only cope but to, within weeks, become one of the two or three most important, most relied-upon footballers at Real Madrid — that is an inordinate achievement.

Manager Carlo Ancelotti, realising how impactful, how mature, how determined his new recruit was, has gone on to squeeze every last drop out of Bellingham. To the player’s detriment, I think.

There’s absolutely zero wrong with the Englishman’s attitude, ideas or performance level — in fact, had he played like he’s done in the last few matches all season then people, by May, would be saying “this is impressive, he’s adapted, he’s contributed and even greater things lie ahead.”



Why ‘special’ Bellingham deserves his top spot on ESPN’s best U21 players

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The trouble is that Bellingham set himself such extraordinary standards that when the immense workload he’s carried (3,000 minutes, fourth most-used player, even after 38 days out injured, and 30 goal contributions) has an impact, and the needle dips even marginally, then Spain’s media report it as if it were some sort of panic-inducing crisis. Nitwits.

It’s not his stats — certainly it’s not them alone — which mark this first season in Spain as epoch-marking. It’s Jude’s chutzpah. It’s his total, head-over-heels mutual love-affair with the Madrid support, it’s his vision, his ambition, his self-belief, it’s the fun he brings to football and it’s the fact that he oozes charm, wit and enjoyment when he interacts with the media.

It’s the fact that no one at Madrid, not even senior seen-it-alls like Kroos and Luka Modric, is immune to his charm nor will they evade his critical gaze if they’ve failed to hit his standards. Highly motivated, highly demanding. He’s also carrying a shoulder problem which was caused in a heavy fall against Rayo Vallecano since November.

From that day to this he’s been playing through pain, his left shoulder has been supported by a tight-fitting sports-brace and, in my opinion, all of this is gradually gnawing at the simply exceptional performance level Bellingham’s shown since day 1 in Spain. Literally no one outside the club has put the right emphasis on how debilitating and draining this can be.

More, I think that constant niggling pain in his shoulder, plus his vicious will-to-win and the fact that he’s not getting a fair rub-of-the-green from Spanish referees, all join together to account for how often the Englishman’s been ready to snarl and show his short-fuse in recent weeks.

For my taste it’s a healthy sign. He’s confident in his environs, he’s fiercely competitive and there’s ferocity when he’s not happy about something. All of these traits are integral parts of winner-DNA, which Bellingham possesses. But his fury can’t be all-consuming to the point that it’s distracting.

Ancelotti’s comment earlier this season was: “Bellingham is a fighter, a winner who, sometimes, lets it get to him when he’s not capable of ensuring that we win a match.”

But we are entering a moment when Bellingham, even aged 20 and in his debut season, needs to be one of those who ensure that Madrid win a match. One against the reigning champions, one which would, with any old type of victory, would put Los Blancos in the semifinals [again] and one which would allow him to shake hands with Guardiola, look him in the eye and say: “Sorry to turn you down Pep but, look at what you missed out on! Do you understand my decision now…?”

And then, for afters, maybe he could win the Clasico for Madrid just like his belter of a goal helped them to do in Barcelona?

Big night on Wednesday, I wish him well. But whether or not he’s got the right stuff to put City out and Madrid through, this will remain an absolutely extraordinary season for the Englishman abroad.