THE GUARD continues to change. No Messi, no CR7 and now, Pep Guardiola has to step aside. It’s France v Germany in the semi-finals, the league that was supposed to be lagging the other “big five” has two representatives. Admittedly one is the heavily bankrolled Paris Saint-Germain, but Lyon were not meant to be present at the last four party.

Manchester City remain in pursuit of the elusive holy grail of big time football, victims of their own defensive shortcomings and perhaps a little over-confidence in the belief Lyon could be easily despatched. Even the media saw them as makeweights in this Lisbon shoot-out.

UEFA should be thankful in some ways. PSG or Leipzig will be in the final, two clubs that divide opinion for various reasons, but mostly as poster-childs for the corporatisation of European football. But should City and PSG have reached the final, the clash of middle eastern-backed clubs would have served to provide a “told you so” snipe at the modern football paradigm. For now, UEFA have been spared that.

Winning the Champions League, as Pep said afterwards, is a tough task. At the business end of the competition, the quality is high and you need luck as well as guile. In a one-off scenario, the pitch is laden with banana skins and there’s no second chance second leg to retrieve the situation. It is good old fashioned knockabout football – a concept the Pan-European club game has rarely seen.

Still, you would have expected City to come through against a team that were seventh in Ligue 1 before the French authorities closed down the competition and handed PSG the title they have bossed since Qatar put its cash on la Table.

A team like City has no real excuse for having alarming gaps in their squad, such as an accomplished defender or two, especially as they went very long on full backs a couple of years ago, spending around £ 150 million. Given they are coached by an obsessive like Guardiola, their carelessness at times in 2020 has been strange – or is it merely that the Pep way has been rumbled?

Certainly this was City’s big opportunity to work their way past their usual stumbling blocks and reach the final. Under Guardiola, City have fallen before the last four every time.

The 2019-20 season for City has been littered with errors, perhaps due to trophy fatigue but also attributable to a lack of quality at the back. Lyon, a club whose wage bill is just over a third of Paris Saint-Germain’s and a couple of hundred million less than Manchester City pay to their players, has a squad that is valued at little more than £ 300 million versus Guardiola’s £ 900 million dressing room.

Lyon have a reputation for developing players via their highly-rated academy. Goalkeeper Anthony Lopes came through OL’s system and demonstrated that he may appear “flashy” but that shouldn’t detract from the fact he’s a fine custodian. Houssem Aouar and Maxence Caqueret are also products of the OL youth team. The starting line-up against Manchester City cost around € 75 million versus City’s € 500 million-plus. It should have been a formality if you compare the stats.

City looked quite relaxed in the opening stages, but the opening goal for Lyon, by Maxwel Cornet in the 24thminute, hinted at the fiasco that was to follow. Cornet took advantage of the ball pinging back from a challenge involving Eric Garcia and the troublesome Karl Toko Ekambi. Cornet’s finish was outstanding, but should it have happened in the first place?

When Kevin De Bruyne equalised in the 69th minute with a typically slick finish, you feared for Lyon, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Moussa Dembélé came on as a substitute in the 75th minute, replacing Memphis Depay. Within four minutes, Dembélé had restored Lyon’s lead, racing onto a ball that went through the legs of Ekambi who was in an offside position, and shooting in off Ederson. There was a hint of controversy about the goal because of a foul earlier in play, but it was a forlorn hope for City.

Raheem Sterling should have equalised but sent his effort, Rosenthal-style, over the crossbar from close range. The ball swung to the opposite end and a tame shot from Aouar is parried by Ederson and Dembélé was on hand to tap home. Game well and truly over. City had 71% of the ball but only seven shots on target. Lyon had six on target from 29%.

For a manager so indelibly linked with the Champions League, Guardiola’s record may still be good, but as the go-to man to win such prizes for his employers, he has not fulfilled the promise at Bayern or City. If he does it in 2021, it will be 10 years between successes. For most managers, the trophy only comes around once, but for those who are blessed twice or three times, there is generally a short gap between success. Jupp Heynckes had a 15-year span between winning his two European Cups, while Ernst Happel won in 1970 with Feyenoord and Hamburg 13 years later. Guardiola comes third in that list if he wins in 2021, but even he is starting to realise City hit a wall when the games become crucial.

Four quarter finals, all very engaging and with just a hint of unpredictability, which is a very rare commodity in this age of serial title winners across the main domestic leagues. UEFA must be very tempted.

 

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA