Guardiola’s Champions League Blues

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Published on 6 May 2022 9:38 pm (UK Time)

There was barely a scattering of lukewarm applause from the Santiago Bernabeu faithful behind the goal as Ferlaine Mendy miraculously cleared Grealish’s effort off the line, his desperate last-ditch defending somehow merely brushing against, rather than rebounding in off an incoming Phil Foden. Nor was there any great stir when Grealish came agonisingly close for a second time just 35 seconds later, this time being denied by the faintest but most vital of touches from the outstretched boot of Thibaut Courtiois. 

For as far as anyone was concerned, all this had achieved was denying a £100M pound footballer his best moment in an underwhelming start to life at City, and kept the scoreline respectable. Beyond that there was no significance, it was immaterial to the fact that City would be going on to Paris. The Bernabeu had already witnessed a substantial dose of footballing magic in the Champions League this season, be it Benzema’s 17 minute hattrick taking Los Blancos from 2-0 down to ahead in the tie against the star-studded Parisians or the ageless Luka Modric picking out a pass from the heavens to deny Chelsea what would have been a staggering comeback of their own, but there was to be no more. 

After a thrilling 3-4 first leg at the Etihad, Real Madrid supporters would have been forgiven for flocking to the Bernabeu on Wednesday night expecting something special yet again. But for 89 minutes, it never looked likely. City had all night kept them at arm’s length, with a if not exactly breath-taking display, certainly a mature and professional performance in the manner of the one which saw them edge past cross-city rivals Atletico a few weeks prior. 

Riyad Mahrez gave City the lead in the 73rd minute, notching City 2 ahead in the tie. Usually this would not be enough to completely rule out Real Madrid. But on this night, they never before had looked less likely and capable of scoring 2 goals. They were up against a side in Manchester City who were close to securing their 5th cleansheet in 6 knockout games. And as the 90 minutes drew to a close, they had not been able to muster as much as a solitary shot on target. 

Then it happened. Camavinga found Benzema who had peeled away from Cancelo and his volleyed pass across goal was a perfect one, finished by the onrushing Rodrygo. 90 seconds later and the impossible happened, Real Madrid and Rodrygo scored again. The Brazilian left his countryman in the City goal helpless and routed to the spot as he expertly headed home Dani Carvajal’s cross to mark the most unexpected last-gasp Champions League comeback since Manchester United in the final of 99. For the first time since the 93rd second of the tie, Real Madrid were level on aggregate.

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There was an air of inevitability about what happened next. The Bernabeu was bouncing, full of belief and certainty about the destination of the tie. It took just 5 minutes of extra-time for Benzema to score Real’s third and put them ahead for the first time on aggregate. City’s one chance came in stoppage time at the end of the first period. Foden glanced Cancelo’s cross towards goal and Courtois was only able to push it out as far as Fernandinho, who with the goal at his mercy just inches out was unable to make a good enough connection, instead putting it wide. It was somewhat reminiscent of the glaring chance Raheem Sterling wasted when City were stunned by Olympique Lyon, for the sheer significance that was felt by the opportunity being missed. 

City never again looked like scoring, and for the 6th time under Pep Guardiola they fell short when it came to crunch time in Football’s biggest club competition. They had lurched from one extreme to the other, just minutes away from clinching a 5th cleansheet in 6 knockout ties, they instead shipped 6 goals in the 2 games, and found that scoring 4 in the home leg had yet again not been enough. Just as it hadn’t against Spurs 3 years earlier, nor had 5 been enough in 2017 against AS Monaco. In those defeats, Pep had been defeated by the away goals rule, suffering for the 3 his side conceded in the home legs, this time the away goals rule was no more, and yet still there was no change to his side’s fortune and once more they was plunged into more Champions League disappointment.  

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It was just the latest in the staggering list of ways Pep and his team have contrived to fall short in Europe. First it was becoming the first team to exit the CL after scoring 5 in a first leg, next it was going down 5-1 against a Liverpool side they finished 25 points clear of in the Premier League, shipping 3 goals in the first half hour at Anfield. Next was a defeat to a Spurs side who finished a whopping 27 points below them in the table and who had only ever played in one Champions League Quarter-Final previously in their history. The away goals obstacle which had knocked City out on 2 occasions out of 3 was removed for their 2020 Quarter-Final with Lyon when it was altered to a one-leg format due to the Pandemic. The French side were 7th in a league commonly referred to as a ‘Farmer’s league’ and had won just 1 more league game than they had lost. On paper it was an extremely easy Quarter-Final opponent, and yet they prevailed over City 3-1. 

Pep finally reached his first semi-final at City in his 5th attempt, and the club finally looked to be over their Champions League hoodoo as they comprehensively dispatched both Borussia Dortmund and PSG, winning all 4 ties to set up an all-English final against Chelsea. Remarkably, the Londoners became the third English team in succession to defeat City in Europe despite finishing exactly three places below them in the Premier League. Each of City’s losses to English sides in the competition came when they had won the league that season and their opponents had finished 4th.

Judging on this record, we should not have been surprised when City once more exited the competition in a tie they were ahead in for all but the very first minute of normal time. They spent 49 minutes two goals infront of Real, and trailed for just 25 minutes from the 210 played. It was the same old story, defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, with the same questions to be asked of the managers decision making. 

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The competition that Guardiola won at the very first time of asking and in which  he trailed no manager bar Bob Paisley for number of Champions League triumphs after lifting his second in three years with Barcelona, had transitioned into a tournament that seems to exist for the mere pleasure of torturing him. It began at Bayern Munich when three times he fell to three different Spanish opponents, first his old enemy Real Madrid, next his club, FC Barcelona and finally to Diego Simeone’s Atletico.   

This complication with the tournament has only intensified at City. Unsurprisingly in these defeats there has been a whole host of bizarre inclusions and omissions in Guardiola’s lineups. Away to Monaco with City 5-3 ahead, he through caution to the wind starting Sterling, De Bruyne, Silva, Sane and Aguero. Fernandinho was tasked with holding together the midfield alone and was overran by a young, hungry Monaco team. Trailing 2-0 at the break there was time for Pep to make some alterations but he stubbornly did nothing until there was just minutes remaining. There he made his one and only sub, an attacker on for a defender in one last desperate bid to salvage the tie. It was unsuccessful as Yaya Toure watched the entirety from the bench.

The damage against Liverpool was all done in the first leg at Anfield. Laporte was dragged out of the centre and asked to play an unfamiliar position at right-back, he was ran ragged by Mo Salah and Nicolas Otamendi who’d been drafted in to partner Vincent Kompany faired no better. Guardiola’s more cautious approach of sacrificing a red-hot Sterling for an extra midfielder made City much easier to contain as the move backfired. 

In 2019, City hit 10 past Schalke 04 in the first knockout round, but found themselves unable to penetrate the Spurs goal in the away leg. Not helping this was Guardiola’s decision to keep Kevin De Bruyne on the bench until the almost laughable, 89th minute. Mahrez who he was replacing had had as much luck as anyone else in a City shirt that night, none and yet he was bafflingly kept on so long. 

Against Lyon in the Covid-altered one-legged Quarter-Final tie on neutral turf  Guardiola went extremely cautious against a side 7th in France. Instead of sticking with the methods that were worked for him in the Premier League, he switched to a 5 at the back, bringing Eric Garcia into the starting 11, who had only played one previous game in the Champions League that season, the final group stage game away to Dinamo Zagreb. Infront of them were 2 defensive midfielders in Fernandinho and Rodri, with Gundogan also in there. Sterling, Jesus and De Bruyne were the sole attackers. The players looked and felt alien in an unfamiliar system and this really was the time it became impossible to ignore Pep’s overthinking in Europe and its consequences any longer.

City’s Champions League final meeting with Chelsea the following year was their third meeting with them in just over a month, in a third different competition and each brought the same outcome, a City defeat. They lost 3 times in a row against a team whose top scorer in the Premier League that season was Jorginho with 7 goals.  Yet again Pep messed up in the Champions League, going without a holding midfielder and instead bringing in Raheem Sterling, who had been badly out of form for a long while, having had a poor personal season. Gundogan, City’s top scorer with 17 goals was instead expected to do the work Rodri or Fernandinho should have been asked to do.   

Fernandinho was introduced early in the second half but by that time City were already trailing. With De Bruyne injured, Pep then turned to a striker but not City’s all-time leading goalscorer Kun Aguero for his last ever game, but Gabriel Jesus. Aguero was City’s final change, but was given significantly less time than Jesus to make an impact. The late nature of Aguero’s introduction was especially surprising given the week before Pep had been in tears whilst being interviewed about Aguero after his final home game for the club.

City were unable to force an equaliser and never looked that likely to, the best player on the night being Chelsea’s holding midfielder N’Golo Kante, shining a light on Pep’s rather bizarre decision to omit his from the starting 11.  City managed just 1 shot on target in 90 minutes, given they had waited so long to get there, having endured many hugely disappointing losses in recent years trying to reach the final for the big one, it seemed a pretty unforgivable wasted opportunity.

At Manchester City there are no stars, every player is viewed equally. That is the reason Kevin De Bruyne was taken off with 20 minutes to go whilst the Real Madrid game was tied at 0-0. He hadn’t had a good game, but taking off your best player when the game is still on a knife-edge is always going to be viewed unfavourably when the tie goes on to be lost. It would be unthinkable for Salah to be hooked by Klopp with 20 minutes (potentially 50 minutes) still to go in a Champions League semi-final. De Bruyne may not have been able to dominate this game with his passing, but he always has the quality to produce one perfect cross and Real Madrid’s goal was always likely to be safer with him off the pitch.

Another regular feature of Guardiola’s Champions League exits alongside the bizarre decisions, is conceding goals in something of an avalanche. 2 goals in 2 minutes was the most extreme example of something that’s been afflicting Pep’s sides in Europe dating back to before he was City’s boss. Right back to his Barcelona days, the Inter Milan tie ended up being lost due to conceding 2 in 13 minutes at the San Siro. As Bayern boss, 3 goals were conceded in 18 minutes in the Semi against Real, a year later it was 3 in 19 vs Barcelona. In the two away goals defeats, City conceded 2 in 8 minutes at home to Monaco, and 2 in 3 minutes against Spurs. Liverpool also hit 3 in 19 first-half minutes in the first leg of their tie. This shows a clear and very worrying pattern. Guardiola’s sides which are so incredibly difficult to score against domestically leak goals at a crazy rate in these Champions League exits. At City, the 9 CL ties which have resulted in exits have seen his side concede at a rate of 2.66 per match. 

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The Semi-Final with Real Madrid was Pep’s 9th in the Champions League, which is more than any manager. He was up against the manager with the second most in Carlo Ancelotti who was taking charge of his 8th. On the touchline and in their managerial approach, they are the antithesis of each other perhaps more than any other 2 managers competing at the top of the game. Pep uses every body part at his disposal to cajole, instruct, remonstrate with and drive on his players. Ancelotti uses his eyebrow to show his displeasure, in the same way you imagine he might react to a bus not arriving when scheduled. 

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As an extraordinary drama unfolded at the Etihad, Guardiola lived and breathed it all, absorbing the on-field blows like a masochist. As Mahrez opted to shoot rather than pass and City were unable to virtually kill the tie inside the first 25 minutes, he raged with a fury as if he was a modern-day Nostradamus who could see how costly it was going to be failing to kill off a Real Madrid who were being pummelled into the ropes. 

Ancelotti on the other hand may have been remembering the 1989 European Cup Semi-Final he was a part of for Sacchi’s AC Milan when they took Real Madrid apart crushing them 5-0. After 30 minutes he looked in danger of being on the other end of it, as City opened up Madrid with ease again and again. If he was having such thoughts however, you wouldn’t have known it. He watched, he waited, he raised his eyebrow. Benzema conjured a goal from a position he had no right to score from. Game on. 

City’s two-goal cushion slipped again when Vinicius Jr. made it 3-2, but Pep’s hands had already clutched instinctively to his head when Vinicius skilfully dummied past Fernandinho whilst still well inside his own half. He had already dropped to knees with the play still a long way short of City’s penalty area. As the goal went in, he sprung up and moved with such a sudden and deliberate move towards the 4th official, the guy could have been forgiven for jumping out of his skin and instinctively moving backwards as Guardiola launched towards him remonstrating furiously about a decision he felt should have gone his way when the ball was down the Real Madrid end. 

As a ball into the box hit the carelessly positioned hand of Aymeric Laporte to give Real the chance to cut the City lead from 2 down to 1 for the third time, Guardiola sat like a man in purgatory thinking about all the reasons he may be sent down rather than up. Benzema demonstrated his own airy cool by gently panenka-ing the ball in to make it 4-3. It had been an extraordinary game, but Ancelotti experienced it as a manager who had seen it all before, as he has, having coached well over 1,000 games and it was taken in by him as just another game which he floated above, whilst Guardiola engaged in every battle big or small.

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In the second leg, the differences between the managers were even more pronounced.  In Extra-time Ancelotti calmly asked his players for their own input regarding substitutions, whilst Pep manically tried to control every aspect of his side talking a mile a minute, bombarding his players with fresh information as they toiled physically and psychologically. Looking at the managers and how they conducted themselves on the sidelines over the two legs, it is no surprise to know that Guardiola has made more semi-finals than anyone else, and lost more. He has lost 6 of 9 played, including 5 from the last 6. Ancelotti has won 5 from 8. And these records really go to show where each managers individual strengths lie. If Ancelotti had been appointed City manager in 2016, I am absolutely certain he would have lifted at least one Champions League title, though likely would have won fewer league titles than Guardiola has.

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Guardiola’s manic energy seems perfectly suited to domestic life, fighting to destroy any complacency from setting in as would be understandable. They are not allowed to switch off for a second, no option to wind games down and see out what they’ve got be it a 2-0 lead. The only option is to go out and kill, crush the opponent, suffocate them 3,4,5-0. Only stop the relentless onslaught when the whistle blows, then go out and do it all over again in 3 days time. This mentality makes the likelihood of a daft slip-up away at Watford much less likely.

 The same approach is not switched off for cup ties, no matter the level of opposition. An opponent from the third tier is not an opportunity to rest players, its an opportunity to win 5-0. No situation is viewed as sufficiently comfortable enough to give players a break. When Sporting Lisbon were beaten 5-0 in the first leg, in the return leg Bernardo Silva, Sterling, Foden and Gabriel Jesus all still started. Surely the point of flying out of the blocks and getting the tie won in the first half of the first leg by racing into a 4-0 half-time lead is in order to rest players for more difficult games later on in the season. Otherwise, other than reducing Pep’s stress levels, what’s actually the point? When Liverpool won their Quarter-Final first leg 3-1 away at Benfica, for the return leg Robertson, Van Dijk, Trent, Fabinho, Thiago, Mane and Salah were absent from the starting 11. This allowed these players to rest up before a monster period of big games including an FA Cup Semi-Final against City, home games against United and Everton and the Champions League Semi-Finals. Liverpool won all these games and had all their best players available.

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Every side that City have been knocked out by in Europe have been inferior to them in quality. This is the point that must be realised when comparing his Champions League record with others. Being knocked out of the Champions League regularly happens to most managers, but not managers with a better team and squad than all of their opponents. When this is the case it is mentality that must be called into question. How can a team so mentally strong domestically, waver so often in Europe? looking through the City squad you don’t see players who have been there and done it on the biggest of occasions and for that reason a naivety and soft under-belly still creeps in. In comparison to Real, who have players like Carvajal, Modric, Casemeiro, Kroos, Benzema who have played Champions League finals, some of them World Cup finals. But such is Pep’s need for an extremely high level of workrate and an ego-free team such players as those would never be signed for his team. But a lack of such characters does get exposed on these big European nights. 

The extraordinary level of intensity and pressing Pep gets out of his team most gamedays where they look a couple of levels up from what their opponents are capable of, was notable in its absence in Extra-time against Real. When you’re always the fitter, faster, sharper side on the pitch every game shouldn’t that difference be noticeable versus your opponents in extra-time? perhaps it would have been had Ancelotti not managed the game so much better, having 3 extra-time subs remaining compared to Guardiola’s 1. 

Manchester City are so often playing their best football and peaking in the middle of seasons, doing enough in these winter and early spring months to open up a large enough gap that the title is usually well wrapped up before it comes to crunch time. But it is in these final months that they have repeatedly fell short in the Champions League and aswell the FA Cup. Could it be that the lack of rest given to his players in competitions such as the League Cup (where managers such as Jurgen Klopp are always rotating) and the FA Cup when faced with basic opposition (do Rodri, Mahrez, De Bruyne, Bernardo, Foden and Jesus really *need* to start to beat Birmingham at home in the 3rd round of the FA Cup?) is hurting City when down the final stretch of a long tough season? I think so. After all, players are not robots. Someone needs to tell Guardiola. 

It perhaps should not come as a surprise that someone as methodical and controlling as Guardiola struggles so much in a competition which best exemplifies the magic and random unpredictability of football. A manager who thrives on control and order down to positioning his players down to the minutest detail on the field is unlikely to thrive when all of that goes out of the window and it comes down to something less quantifiable, footballing magic. The Champions League still manages to be a throwback competition to the day of the 90s and early 2000s when football was so much more about individual moments from the best players rather than being won by teams with the best overall structure and control, which now dominates domestic leagues but still not the Champions League. And it’s no coincidence that Real Madrid a club who have always thrived off individuality and having players who grab games with instinct rather than by design, have henceforth been the most successful Champions League side of all time, aswell as of the last 10 years.  

Guardiola’s football which is structured to be the most dominant and situation-controlling in the history of the sport is not a style that gets fans blood pumping. The style is successful in making the outcome of a City victory feel inevitable, which is very psychologically beneficial to his team, and damaging to the opponent ofcourse, as City every game fly out of the traps and often are 1-0 up before the opposition have managed to establish any kind of foot in the game. The Real Madrid home leg is a perfect example, City led after 90 seconds and were 2-0 up after 10 minutes. This leads to an air of relaxation in the stadium where it seems easy for supporters to forget it’s actually a Champions League semi-final and one of the biggest games in your history. When it’s this easy, it feels like just another game. This can have a damaging effect on City’s atmosphere, which was very quiet for the entirety of the game. When it feels inevitable that you will win and win convincingly against even Real Madrid, there isn’t much to shout and sing and feel emotional about. The atmosphere was world’s apart from the likes of which we’ve seen recently in European semi-finals from the likes of Rangers, Frankfurt and Liverpool. And I do think that this isn’t irrelevant or without consequences, players are human and react to the noise and emotion of the crowd. 

It also means that on days City aren’t able to establish a quick lead and are still level in the second half, fans can get nervous and almost confused by the unusual situation of their team not being in the lead, and frustration can seep in quicker than the desire to help the team over the line by getting right behind them. Clubs support can often be reflections of their managers. Klopp and Simeone teams get their support whipped into a frenzy, with Guardiola’s teams fans arrive with an air of expectation and certainty about the outcome of the match, and when there is bumps along the way, just like the manager, the support can seem unsure on how to deal with it.

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