This was the mother of all chokes. Manchester City had Real Madrid on the mat four times in their Champions League semifinal tie, over two legs. They squandered the opportunities and failed to kill off the tie, as Santiago Bernabéu witnessed the Real resurrection. Real’s comeback was down to their perseverance, belief and legacy, but as commentator Peter Drury said on air, Pep Guardiola, the City manager, did not know where to look.
Over the last six years, City have lost Champions League knockout fixtures against Monaco, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Lyon, Chelsea and now Real Madrid. Nobody is saying that Guardiola is glorified David Moyes. He has been a football revolutionary. But the fact of the matter is that he hasn’t won the Champions League as a manager without Lionel Messi. When City appointed Guardiola in 2016, they brought in arguably the finest manager in the business to win the European Cup. Of course they wanted to be a serious force in English football and if they win the Premier League title this term, they would be winning it four times in the last five years. That’s amazing consistency, playing wonderful football. But as regards to the Champions League, Guardiola has failed to deliver and his Etihad boss Khaldoon Al-Mubarak will not be happy.
A club flushed with oil-money from Abu Dhabi, which has inflated the transfer market and at times allegedly got around the Financial Fair Play Regulations (FFP), it’s good from the game’s perspective that they lost to the greatest football club in the world. And City now run the risk of returning empty-handed from a season that had started off with a £100-million acquisition of Jack Grealish. Grealish didn’t get much game time this season and ironically, he was criticised for his team’s Champions League exit, where he came on as a second-half substitute in the semi-final.
“When you look at 1-1, when Grealish is against Carvajal, he is passed easily, too easily. He must absolutely fight to stop that cross. You do not want the ball in the box, anything can happen when everybody goes forward. That is where City did not secure the game, defending on the sides. Because they conceded, even when you look when Benzema gave the ball back, they didn’t really attack the ball the defenders, they made big,” Arsene Wenger, the legendary former Arsenal manager, told beIN SPORTS.
Coming back to City’s season, they are out of the domestic cup competitions. They have bowed out of the Champions League. Their lead over Liverpool in the Premier League is just one point, with four matches to go. Not many months ago, City held a 14-point lead over Liverpool in the Premier League. If they fail to put aside the Champions League heartbreak and fizzle on the Premier League home stretch, it will be a season to forget for Guardiola.
Liverpool, on the other hand, are chasing the quadruple and their spending is miniscule compared to City’s extravagance. Last summer, the Reds signed up centre-half Ibrahima Konate for £36 million. They brought in Luis Diaz for £37 million in the January transfer window and the winger has proved to be a top signing. If Liverpool sizzle and City fizzle, the Jurgen Klopp versus Guardiola debate will resurface. Compared to Guardiola’s spending of almost £1 billion, Klopp has spent £512 million in the transfer market. He has made Liverpool the Premier League champions after a gap of 30 years, he has won the Champions League and if he goes on to win the quadruple this term, he will gain significant bragging rights over his nearest rival.
A lot of people in the football world already believe that Klopp has trumped Guardiola. About a month ago, during an interaction with talkSPORT, former Germany midfielder Didi Hamann claimed that Guardiola’s silverware-count as City manager wasn’t enough. “Everybody is going on about Guardiola that he is the Godfather of managers, but if you actually look at his record over the last three years – yes he has done great with City to get 100 points in a season, but Klopp didn’t spend half the money; he has probably spent a quarter of the money and they have been running them close with 98 or 99 points, and this season it’s the same thing.
“Pep has spent nearly half a billion on centre-backs alone, and obviously last year they got to the Champions League final and I have got to say he lost the final, because he didn’t play Rodri.”
Guardiola must ensure that City’s Champions League implosion doesn’t derail their pursuit of the Premier League title.