Guardiola’s City primed to solve Champions League puzzle
Since the Abu Dhabi-based owners took over the club in 2008, City have won four Premier Leagues titles, two FA Cups and five League Cups but being crowned the ‘Champions of Europe’ remains the holy grail for them.Updated: Aug 14, 2020 23:36 IST
Will the pieces finally fall into place for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City when it comes to solving the Champions League puzzle? The victory over Real Madrid in the round-of-16 and more importantly the way it was achieved suggests that the Citizens are well placed to break the duck.
City face Lyon in the last of the quarter-finals on Saturday night. On paper, it seems to be one of the easiest ties they could have asked for. But Guardiola isn’t taking the Ligue 1 side lightly. After all, City were stunned at the Etihad in the group stage by Lyon last season and the return fixture finished 2-2 thanks to a late header by Sergio Aguero. Also, the French side eliminated Juventus in the round-of-16.
Since the Abu Dhabi-based owners took over the club in 2008, City have won four Premier Leagues titles, two FA Cups and five League Cups but being crowned the ‘Champions of Europe’ remains the holy grail for them. They have spent £1.66 billion on transfers but City’s best effort has been a semi-final appearance in 2015-16, where they lost 1-0 Real Madrid.
For Guardiola too the stakes are high. For all his domestic laurels with Bayern Munich and now City, his CV shows no Champions League title for nine years and no semi-final appearance since 2016. All his success in Europe came with Lionel Messi by his side. He would love to finally get it right this time around.
Guardiola knows how important it is to succeed in Europe for him as well as the club. “It is important. For Real Madrid to beat a big team in the last-16 is normal. For us, if we are going to be champions we have to beat these teams. This is important for our season and for our future,” said Guardiola after his team’s win over Real Madrid.
“The big clubs lift the titles. Real Madrid reached the final three times in a row and this shows we can do it, but we have to see how we recover. Last season we played Lyon twice and we could not beat them. We have to be calm,” he added.
Every year, City play some dazzling football in the lead up to the Champions League knockouts but have often seen their challenge fizzle out in unexpected circumstances. To begin with, Guardiola’s first season as their manager saw City lose to Monaco on away goals after the tie ended 6-6 in 2016-17. The 5-1 mauling at the hands of Liverpool the following season and last season’s exit—again on away goals—against Tottehnam have been some of the hardest pills to swallow for Guardiola.
If City get past Lyon, they will next face either Bayern Munich or Barcelona and both teams have had their issues as far as going all the way in the Champions League over the last few seasons is concerned. City thus should not be bogged down by the pressures of past failures as they eye glory.
This season, City have been up and down but last week against Real everything worked to perfection. Right from the forwardline of Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden and Gabriel Jesus to Fernandinho and Aymeric Laporte in the defence, everyone applied the right press on Real throughout the game, induced mistakes and got the job done.
Guardiola once stated that his teams “didn’t do unnecessary tackles and he is an attack-only aficionado”. That approach has sometimes backfired on him with City billed too meek when it came to defending but Guardiola has stood by his principles and has his team nicely placed among the top contenders.
Since the restart post the Covid-19 pandemic, City have been relentless, having scored 38 goals in just 13 matches. The fact that none have come off the boots of their top striker Aguero, who has missed 11 of those matches through a knee injury, speaks volumes of the attacking prowess they possess in the frontline. The team has 144 goals in all competitions this season.
Kevin De Bruyne has blossomed into one of the finest attacking midfielders under Guardiola and is a key commander to launch attacks on opponents. And then there are Raheem Sterling, Bernando Silva, Riyad Mahrez, Gabriel Jesus and Phil Foden to add to the might.
In the absence of Aguero, who may not return to action, they offer Guardiola technical flexibility and make City a dangerous outfit to face. Take, for example, the Real match where Guardiola started with Foden as ‘False 9’ with Jesus to his left and Sterling right. The idea was to stretch the Real defence, take them out of their comfort zone and give them no time on the ball. Great plan, perfect execution.
The Real game also showed Guardiola offering an extra protection to the backline which has been his Achilles heel in Europe for the last few seasons and at home this season. So every time Real attacked, the backline of Laporte and Fernandinho had Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan to help them out. Kyle Walker too ditched his inclination to push forward to help out and even Foden was seen dropping back to chip in with defensive duties. It meant Real didn’t a have free run in the midfield area. That was pleasing to see as defensive frailties were one of the major reasons why City fell in the last three editions of the Champions League.
The win over Real gave City a big push, and now they just need three more perfect games to land their maiden European title.