Guardiola’s Groundhog Day
Pre-match it was puzzling and potentially perplexing. City’s starting XI suggested an uncharacteristically cautious – almost negative – approach from the Catalan genius.
Whatever misgivings soon gave way to the usual sentiments of ‘In Pep We Trust’. As fans and mere mortals, who were we to question the thinking of the club’s most successful manager?
Post match it was painful and, with the benefit of hindsight, predictable that a master plan had disintegrated into a disaster class.
Aided by UEFA’s karma creation, otherwise known as VAR, and abetted by glaring goal scoring and goal keeping gaffes, Guardiola’s quest for Champions League glory once again shuddered to a halt at the quarter final stage.
Pep is being widely criticised – and with some justification – for fielding a team that was short on creativity. No Bernardo, Silva, Foden or Mahrez, opting instead to nullify Lyon’s attacking threat with a trio of Fernandinho, Rodri and Gundagon.
Why, having beaten Real Madrid a week ago, make such fundamental changes to combat a team which finished seventh in France’s much maligned Ligue 1?
It doesn’t stack up in the aftermath of City’s devastating 3-1 defeat. Ifs and buts don’t show up in a score line, but if Jesus and, most tellingly, Sterling had scored, and Ederson hadn’t fumbled, Pep would have been hailed as a tactical visionary.
Theoretically that’s a three goal swing to City, not forgetting the outrageous VAR review which dismissed Dembele’s foul on Laporte, just seconds before he raced clear to re-establish Lyon’s lead at 2-1.
It could all have been so very different, but once again, it’s all so very depressingly familiar.
In previous Champions League exits against Monaco, Liverpool and Spurs, City have suffered due to some outrageous officiating, most recently Llorente’s handball, immediately before scoring Spurs’ precious away goal at the Etihad.
The season before that, Leroy Sane’s legitimate goal would have given City a 2-0 half time lead against Liverpool at the Etihad. Guardiola wouldn’t have been sent off for protesting about the disallowed goal. The aggregate tie would have been well set at 3-2 to the Scousers, with 45 minutes to play in a febrile atmosphere in M11 3FF.
A 3-0 first leg defeat at Anfield could so easily have been a 2-2 draw, but for an offside Salah goal being allowed, an onside Jesus goal being disallowed, and a stonewall penalty not awarded after Robertson upended Sterling.
Last night’s VAR decision to allow Dembele’s first goal to stand must have had UEFA’s hierarchy creaming their underwear. City knew if it came down to fine margins they’d end up the loser.
The harsh truth is that City were the architects of their own downfall. Wrong team selection, wrong tactics, a badly miscued effort by Jesus, an astonishing open goal miss by Sterling and a schoolboy goalkeeping error by Ederson – all combined to deliver sweet FA in Lisbon.
It’s an almost unforgivable cocktail of calamities which, nonetheless must be forgiven, if City are to win top honours in 2020/21. Sterling has been a stellar performer, particularly since Project Restart, and he, more than anyone, will be well aware of the ramifications of that miss.
Lyon were good, but not that good, that a City side playing as it can, and has done recently, shouldn’t have just swept them aside.
Aymeric Laporte was surprisingly suspect in a more exposed defensive back three, whereas the unsettled Eric Garcia, at just 19, showed his lack of experience on the night.
The irony of this undoubtedly disappointing campaign, is that City’s much maligned defence, is cited as the primary reason for the Premier League title now residing on Merseyside. The lack of leadership, the loss of Kompany to Anderlecht and Laporte to long term injury, cannot be overstated, but City only conceded two more goals in the league than Liverpool.
Yes, there are lies, damned lies and statistics and City, having already acquired Nathan Ake at £41m from Bournemouth, will be looking for more upgrades at centre back and left back this summer.
Take a look at the other end of the spectrum and the 102 goals scored in the Premier League, and you’d be forgiven for thinking all is rosy upfront. City have goals running throughout the team, with five players; Sterling, Jesus, Aguero, De Bruyne and Mahrez, all reaching double figures in the PL.
But, put it into perspective, there could so easily be another 20-30 goals in the GF column. Eradicate that profligacy and, irrespective of the season’s defensive deficiencies, City would have much more than just the League Cup to show from 2019/20. The same principles apply in the Champions League.
City are going to be busy in the transfer window – one that runs through until early October – and with good reason. It isn’t a knee jerk reaction to a poor defeat, but this is a team, a squad, in need of more than the odd tweak.
Ferran Torres looks a great capture at £20.9m from Valencia, with bags of ability to provide crosses and assists to swell the ‘goals for’ column still further.
The transfer rumour mill is in overdrive so let’s see if it’ll be another two, three, four or even more signings arriving at the Etihad, with a similar number of ‘name ‘ players departing.
The big question as City strive to get back on track is who is going to lead City’s resurgence?
Pep is entering the final year of his contract. By next summer he’ll have been with City for five years. He was at Barcelona for four years and Bayern Munich for three – will he want to stay at the Etihad for an extended period?
At what stage does he or Khaldoon make a decision? What contingencies are in place if Guardiola decides to go? Obviously these elements are not in the public domain – and for good reason – but nonetheless they will need to be addressed sooner rather than later.
By most standards finishing as Premier League Runners-up, League Cup winners, FA Cup semi finalists and Champions League quarter finalists is a long way from disaster, but Pep has set the bar ‘so, so’ high in previous years.
As far as Sheikh Mansour and Khaldoon are concerned it’s no secret they covet the Champions League above all else. The majority of City fans may not agree – many preferring Premier League glory – but sticking it to UEFA and lifting the ‘jug-eared’ trophy – remains the Holy Grail in Abu Dhabi.
Here’s hoping Pep, Khaldoon and Co, can somehow eliminate the over elaborate thinking, the second guessing and mental hangs up which punctuate every Champions League campaign, and finally get the job done in Istanbul next May.
By David Walker