ANOTHER drama, another collapse. Manchester City, European champions-elect virtually every year since 2016, crashed out in the most bizarre circumstances. City went to Madrid with a one-goal advantage from the first leg, but they also conceded three goals in the process. In another age, a one-goal lead would have been considered precarious. Riyad Mahrez extended that lead to two goals and that should have been it, but then the world caved in. Madrid had discovered from that chaotic first leg that City let goals in.
Notwithstanding the durability of Real Madrid and their European heritage, City’s inability to hang on to a 5-3 aggregate lead demonstrated a certain weakness in their make-up. Although Pep Guardiola claims the club’s owners have never insisted tthe Champions League is a priority, no investor would spend as much money to merely win a domestic league that could be won by far less. Paris Saint-Germain have the same issue in France, although they are not as stretched as City.
The target has to be European domination, but the problem is, that is also the goal of the elite band that City now belong. They may have a big advantage locally, but moving into a different socio-economic group means fiercer competition from clubs with more know-how.
As we have seen with PSG, failure on the European stage triggers a release clause in the form of a manager getting sacked. City, to their credit, are not quite as impatient, although after six years of Guardiola they must be wondering what they have to do to win the big prize. Progress has been made, however, with the last two seasons delivering a final and semi-final, the two best seasons under Guardiola in the competition. The expectation hasn’t necessarily come from the coach or the club, City have been relatively quiet about their hopes and they have generally been very respectful about each and every opponent.
City’s league form under Guardiola is beyond impressive – 167 wins in 225 games, a win rate of 74.22%, 2.47 goals per game and a yearly average points haul of 88. In the past few years, they have been egged-on by the emergence of Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool and the two teams are far more advanced than the rest of the competition. This pre-eminence simply places these teams among the best in Europe, but the dynamic changes at this point, although it is very clear that the Premier League’s wealth is starting to move City and Liverpool ahead of the game. If the Champions League was a genuine league, these clubs would be at the top, because financial power, coupled with an intelligent approach to coaching, player acquisition and a sustainable structure, will always give them a big advantage.
Knockout competitions are different, especially those that included two-legged ties. Ask most football followers and they will tell you the Champions League becomes exciting when it reached the KO phase. Excitement doesn’t just come from predictable, attritional league games, it comes from the unexpected, from the sheer theatre of it all.
Maybe, just maybe, City need a different, more industrial approach for these games than the purist technique and long-distance running of the Premier League. Guardiola’s City have won five Cups, four of which have been the EFL Cup, a competition that doesn’t seem to overstretch them. Only once have they won the FA Cup. Their real strength lies in the long-haul competition, where class prevails and victories can be notched-up at their own pace. Hence, City slipped back into gear quite easily against Newcastle United, winning 5-0. Klopp knew what he was talking about when he said he could not see City dropping points.
At the same time, the vision we all have of Manchester City is not of a team scrapping for points and success, it is more of a sweeping tide of beautiful, skilful football that overwhelms the opposition. Perhaps there is one element that can be improved in the City set-up, but it may not be aligned to Guardiola’s character? He has coached Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City, clubs where he has had the pick of the best talent and financial power over the rest of the league. Has a fist ever been clenched in the City dressing room?
Manchester City will, one day, become European champions, but it may not be in Guardiola’s time. The club is wealthier than almost every rival and can attract any players they choose to focus on. But they may have to develop a harder edge and that doesn’t appear to be Pep’s way. Serial champions is one thing, but achieving greatness among a select peer group could require muscle and blood. Right now, in Abu Dhabi, they will be casting their eyes enviously at Liverpool and Real Madrid, two clubs that have solved the mystery of the holy grail.