Heartbreak is an interesting concept, how it transcends any situation in a beat of a, once whole, heart, by stopping time and making everything stand still. That’s exactly what happened at the Etihad Stadium, just moments ago the stadium had been gripped by sheer euphoria, bodies falling on top of each other as Manchester City edged ever closer to an unprecedented, unheard of, quadruple. The Etihad, bubbling and boiling, was a cauldron of noise. And in a flash, it was gone. People that had fallen half-a-dozen rows ahead of them were starting to stand, looking around at the confused faces around them trying to, desperately, grasp the situation. Like a post-apocalyptic scene, it was all a haze, real-time being viewed in slow-motion. Then it happened, the screen’s in the corners of the ground flashed blue and the dreaded VAR logo popped up, the goal was under review.
A blast of the ref’s whistle later and a heavy silence had made itself known. It wasn’t complete silence, far from it, from one corner you could hear the Tottenham fans, however, the silence of the City fans, eerily, drowned them out. In the silence, you could hear hearts breaking and hearts sinking, you could hear the shock of having the semi-final in touching distance, to proverbially grasp it, only for it to ripped away after celebrating the achievement.
Later replays showed what wouldn’t be accepted in the ground, Sergio Aguero was, indeed, offside. It made it easier to swallow, a goal that shouldn’t have stood had been ruled out. However, it felt unfair at the same time, it was only the fifth time City had played with VAR, whose addition would have felt welcome at earlier points of the season. It was shock, justice, and somewhere nestled between the two sat heartbreak.
To write this article I sat down and rewatched the entirety of our Champions League run, all be it in highlight form this time. There were the struggles against Lyon, the dismantling of Shaktar, Leroy Sane’s superb free-kick in Germany and eventually Tottenham. It was the first time I’ve looked back at that Raheem Sterling moment, an audible thrill past the lips of the City supporters as Sterling received the ball, the knowledge that the goal would soon be chalked off made it hard to watch, even harder as Pep Guardiola charged down the sideline to join his ecstatic players. However, the more I watched the more it became clear City had way too many of these moments, moments where a daring City would clutch a game when all seemed impossible.
Against Lyon, there was Aguero’s late equaliser – it was a game City really should have lost, Maxwel Cornet squandered a number of glorious chances, that a top-striker would have finished, before finding the net. In France, it was the will of Aymeric Laporte that spurred City on to gain that vital point and some sort of redemption following the defeat in the reverse fixture. The two wins against Hoffenheim were anything but straight forward, if it wasn’t for Leroy Sane’s magnificent free-kick the result, at the Etihad, may have differed. Andrej Kramarić, who was toothless at Leicester, and Reiss Nelson, who didn’t get a look in at Arsenal, were made to look like world-beaters in a game where the backline should have easily contained them. Even Schalke were only beat in the first leg thanks to an Ederson long ball in the 96th minute.
Overall, the Champions League campaign was disappointing, particularly for a side who went in as the bookies’ favourites. Lyon, as young and as exciting as they are, shielded themselves the same way Monaco had done two years prior, protected by creativity and pace, and yet should have been put the sword. Hoffenheim, without being disrespectful, are in no way a European heavyweight. At the helm, they may have Julian Nagelsmann, one of the most promising young coaches of this generation, but it should have been a routine win. And then we come to Tottenham. Tottenham Hotspurs. The team that won 3 out of their last 12 games in the Premier League. Knocked the favourites out.
Guardiola, and with him Manchester City, failed to reach the final four of the Champions League – once again. Questions will arise, as they always do, as to why Guardiola – arguably the best coach of his generation – once more failed to return to the final of Europe’s premier banquet since his victory in 2011; to why the ‘fourmidables’ of Manchester, with their extensive collection of world-class talent, seem a shell of their domestic excellence when poised by the European conundrum.
Like it or not we live in an era defined by continental success, from the Champions League to the Copa Libertadores, and the Europa League to the Copa Sudamericana. The best teams win on the grandest stages. Even with our domestic treble, Liverpool can be perceived to have had the better season, in the eyes of some, with their Champions League triumph. The match fell flat, it was by no means a classic, but it was a victory. Liverpool, more so than any other English side, seem intertwined with the competition, no matter how poor they perform domestically they’re always there and thereabouts in Europe. They’re fearless, believing in their own divine right of a final spot come May, no team is too big for the occasion. Nothing encompasses this more than Anfield, whilst it’s fun to poke fun at them, it’s undeniable that Anfield changes on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. It’s a stark contrast just 40 miles away, whilst Anfield cherishes the European nights the Etihad, particularly in the earlier rounds, seems to shun them.
It starts with the UEFA anthem, a staple of European fixtures. When the iconic theme blasts around the Etihad it’s greeted with a chorus of boos, two fingers to UEFA. The booing stems from frustrations towards UEFA, from unfair FFP sanctions to an away match against CSKA where City fans were unfairly punished. The boos that ring around the Etihad are the City fans rejecting UEFA’s showcase event in protest to their perceived unfair treatment. The anthem is normally celebrated, it holds its own certain prestige, one that Guardiola was keen to uphold when he pleaded fans to stop booing. Particularly, in the group stage, the negative atmosphere can cause the atmosphere to fall flat. City expect in the group stage like a killer whale circling a seal, the outcome is already written and the atmosphere resembles that, a sense of inevitability.
However, in no way am I saying that City’s atmosphere is – for lack of a better term – shit. It’s far from it. Something interesting happens every New Year in Manchester, City’s yearly January collapse – a feat the side managed in December this year to keep the fans on edge. On the continent, things change too. We forget our domestic dominance and return to ‘Little ol’City’, a side that seems just happy to be there. However, with that comes an underdog mentality, that the City faithful really buy into. Watch the teams walking out to the Etihad on a European knockout fixture and focus on the crowd, if you can see them under the barrage of flags and blanket of confetti. Make no mistake the Etihad gets going. It’s an odd scenario, we seem to embrace the competition, lure it into our arms, before wholeheartedly pushing it away as we definitely state: “UEFA are corrupt anyway, they hate us.”
European failure has been a constant blot in Manchester City’s copybook for the past decade. Ever since City have become a constant in the knockout rounds of Europe’s premier competition they haven’t managed to vanquish a big side, with the exception of PSG. Look back at those fixtures in 2016, there were several standout performances, Joe Hart beating away every shot Zlatan Ibrahimovic could produce should Eliaquim Mangala allow him a rare half yard of space. Above it all it was the will of Kevin De Bruyne, scratching, clawing, dragging, City in the semi’s one, pinpoint pass at a time. It’s not hard to believe De Bruyne was the one to put us through, he was the only player that seemed bothered that season, post-Guardiola announcement.
The semi-final against Real Madrid followed, City’s biggest European night ever and they fell flat, negative boring football. It was almost as if Manuel Pellegrini was not confident his City side could beat the all-conquering galacticos, or at the very least give them a good game – fallen on their swords. It was a different problem the next year as City, now a new-look side, seemed to forget the basic principles of defending, shipping three goals in both games.
When a genuinely great side fails as consistently as City on the European stage questions must be asked about the mentality of the players. Through the squad, there are only a couple of players who have played in the Champions League final; Ilkay Gundogan and Danilo, and it’s the only the latter to have a winners medal. Compare that with the rest of Guardiola’s signings and an interesting trend appears, they have all won domestic titles at their previous club. This little detail that Guardiola encompasses about mentality shone through in the latter stages of the Premier League campaign as the side continued to win and win, like a machine.
This little observation was particularly interesting in the back-to-back Tottenham fixtures. The European fixture was frantic, the domestic fixture was controlled; we saw two different City’s. The free-flowing City that had left everything on the pitch in the Champions League turned into a machine hell-bent on grinding out a win to secure three more points, in the space of three days.
Manchester City has been formidable this season, it has won the Community Shield, Carabao Cup, FA Cup, and Premier League – with the second highest points title in history. However, the ultimate test, as to how the Man City project shall be judged, is the Champions League – the grandest stage of football. When Sterling sunk into the Etihad turf, Spurs’ players celebrated, and the silence swallowed all, it was groundhog day for City.
It seems difficult to pinpoint City’s European failures, there seem to be a plethora of intangibles that create it.
You can follow the author here: @TheWSchofield
You can follow us on twitter for everything Manchester City: @City_Xtra