Manchester City crashed out of the Champions League following their dramatic defeat at the hands of Real Madrid, with Pep Guardiola now facing the prospect of a trophyless season
Pep Guardiola must now ensure Manchester City’s agonising Champions League exit does not derail their pursuit of the Premier League title.
Only once in his glittering managerial career has Guardiola ended a season empty-handed – his debut campaign at City – before he began to amass trophies with ruthless efficiency. Given the seismic emotional and mental toll Wednesday’s defeat to Real Madrid is likely to take on him and his players, there is now the very real possibility of that happening again this season.
That would be an unthinkable prospect for City, who at one stage held a 14-point lead over Liverpool and, until three weeks ago, retained hopes of a Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup Treble. Now they have just one shot left at silverware, although the momentum in the title race is surely now with Liverpool, who remain on course for an unprecedented Quadruple and who face City’s conquerors Real in the Champions League final in Paris on May 28.
City host Newcastle on Sunday and could find themselves a point behind title rivals Liverpool by the time they play, if Jurgen Klopp’s side can beat Tottenham at home on Saturday. While Guardiola’s immediate aim is to get City over the line and deliver a fourth league title in five years, longer-term he must solve the problem of why they keep coming up short in the Champions League.
Managers and players talk about fine margins at the highest level, but there is a recurring theme about City’s Champions League exits under Guardiola over the past six years. When they concede in knockout games, they tend to do so in bursts, suffering a collective failure of composure and focus, which leaves them unable to regroup and with ultimately no way back in the tie.
In 2017, in the last 16 second leg away to Monaco, City conceded twice in eight minutes to go out on away goals. At Liverpool at the quarter-final stage the following year, three goals shipped in 19 minutes left them with too much to do in the return leg.
In 2019, in a frenetic quarter-final against Tottenham, Guardiola’s side conceded twice in three minutes early on and again went out on away goals. The following year, two goals leaked in eight minutes in a one-off quarter-final tie against Lyon – then seventh in the French league – saw City suffer another crushing exit.
And on Wednesday, holding a two-goal advantage on 90 minutes, City conceded twice in succession and again in extra-time, to suffer the same fate. In the tie against Lyon and the 1-0 defeat to Chelsea in last year’s final, Guardiola was accused of “over-thinking”.
Against Lyon, he switched to a back-three, while against Chelsea he inexplicably went without a recognised holding midfielder. Yet in the Bernabeu on Wednesday, Guardiola was not guilty of over-elaboration.
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The only charge that could be levelled at him was the gamble of starting with right-back Kyle Walker, who had not played for three weeks. However, Walker was one of City’s better performers until his withdrawal through injury after 73 minutes, which ultimately sparked their collapse, leaving Guardiola’s defence vulnerable without his pace and defensive discipline.
That said, City should not have conceded twice in 91 seconds, to send the tie into extra-time. To concede once so late on is careless, to concede twice and relinquish the tie from a position of control is unforgivable and will eat away at Guardiola for a long time. Almost £1billion has been spent on providing Guardiola with the most expensive squad the game has seen. But not even being bankrolled by Sheikh Mansour’s billions can secure the trophy he craves the most.