MADRID: It’s an image that has come to define Pep Guardiola on his biggest nights in the Champions League with Manchester City. That one of him leaning back, knees bent, hands covering his face in anguish.
Guardiola was doing it again late on Wednesday as he witnessed the latest collapse of his team in a competition he was brought in six years ago to win. And still hasn’t.
After all, City was ahead on aggregate against Real Madrid in the semifinals from the second minute of the first leg to the 90th minute of the second leg. Then, absolute chaos.
Is it on Guardiola that City’s players froze inside the Santiago Bernabéu, conceding two goals in barely 90 seconds to be dragged into extra time?
Or was City just unfortunate to be on the wrong side of another crazy Champions League night?
File away this extraordinary 6-5 loss on aggregate to Madrid along with the equally wild last-16 exit to Monaco in Guardiola’s first season at City, the quarterfinal eliminations at the hands of Liverpool, Tottenham and Lyon from 2018-20, and the meek loss to Chelsea in 2021 final.
It’s a sorry combination of bad luck, bad finishing and bad team selections, and it must be making City fans feel that their club is simply destined not to win Europe’s biggest trophy under the man many believe to be the world’s best manager and despite heavy spending by its Abu Dhabi ownership.
“It is tough for us, we cannot deny that,” said Guardiola, who spoke calmly after the match — perhaps numb to the latest in a string of Champions League disappointments which, to some, blot his managerial career.
Still, his critics will point out, Guardiola hasn’t won the Champions League without Lionel Messi. Guardiola’s wait for the biggest of club titles extends to 11 years, since the second of his victories with Messi-inspired Barcelona (2009 and ’11).
And those same critics will likely point to his decision-making during the second half against Madrid, arguing it cost City dearly just like it did with those curious team selections against Liverpool in 2018, Lyon in ’20 and Chelsea last year.
Was bringing off Kevin De Bruyne (in the 72nd minute), Gabriel Jesus (78th) and Riyad Mahrez (85th) too negative, allowing Real Madrid to seize the momentum in those final few minutes of bedlam in regulation time? Some might say they were reasonable decisions and that the players he brought on — Ilkay Gundogan, Jack Grealish and Fernandinho — had the experience, character and technical qualities to help City maintain control.
Gundogan, for example, helped to create Mahrez’s 73rd-minute goal that re-established City’s two-goal advantage. Grealish could have scored twice, denied by a clearance off the line by Ferland Mendy and the studs of goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
So maybe on this occasion, the finger should be pointed not at Guardiola but his players. Or maybe Madrid just produced a comeback for the ages. It certainly feels the Spanish team’s name might be on the trophy — for a record-extending 14th time — the way it has been seen off Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and now City on a dramatic run to a final against Liverpool on May 28.
In the long term, Guardiola might have just one more opportunity to win the Champions League with City, given his latest contract is due to expire at the end of next season. He might yet have Erling Haaland, heavily linked with a move to the Etihad from Borussia Dortmund, to help the team secure a title that’s proving elusive.
Certainly City needs an out-and-out, top-class striker next season after deciding to spend big on a midfielder, Grealish, instead of a center forward to replace Sergio Aguero.
In the short term, Guardiola has to get his players mentally ready to shake off their European heartache and complete the job in the Premier League title race.
City is one point ahead of Liverpool with four games remaining, the first of which is at home against Newcastle on Sunday before meetings with Wolverhampton, West Ham and Aston Villa. Four wins and City is the champion again, for the sixth time in 11 years and fourth time in six years under Guardiola.
City recovered from the pain of Champions League elimination to Tottenham in 2019 to win its final five league games that season. Seeing the job through in the Premier League is not typically a problem for City and Guardiola.
Not so the Champions League.