Pep Guardiola’s Champions League curse with Manchester City struck again on Saturday night when he and his team blew what he had called a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’ to win the biggest club prize in the game and crashed to defeat against Lyon, the seventh best team in France.
Raheem Sterling compounded Manchester City‘s misery with an astonishing open-goal miss five minutes from time that would have brought City level for the second time. Within 60 seconds, Lyon confirmed their shock victory when substitute Moussa Dembele scored his second goal of the night following an uncharacteristic mistake by Ederson. Amid the emptiness of the Estadio Jose Alvalade, City’s ineptitude felt even more surreal.
What happens to them in this competition? What happens to Guardiola? It is as if both manager and team have developed some sort of allergy to Europe’s premier prize. This is the tournament which defines players and managers, which the elite value more than any other, and yet year after year, Guardiola, probably the best coach in the world, contrives to blow it.
On Saturday night, yet again, they were unrecognizable for large parts of the game. They were different. Their adventure was gone, their brio gone, their bravura gone, their assurance gone, their conviction gone, their composure gone. Guardiola picked a team packed with caution and he got the cautious performance he deserved. Lyon, who could not even finish in the top six in Ligue 1, were worthy winners.
After a string of tactical mishaps and selection errors in recent years, he made another on Friday night, picking a conservative line-up, trying to anticipate what Lyon were going to do rather than trusting to the brilliance of his own side. David Silva, Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva were all left out of the starting line-up.
By the time Guardiola changed it early in the second half, much of the damage had been done. David Silva came on for the last six minutes in what was his final appearance for the club. It felt unjust that a City career that has brought so much joy to so many should end like this.
This was not quite the convulsion of Barcelona’s 8-2 defeat by Bayern Munich on Friday night but it was still a huge shock. Guardiola was brought to City to win this competition and this was probably the worst of his failures in Europe so far. It is a huge blow to the club’s ambitions and leaves a question mark over how much further he can take them. Lyon will play Bayern in one semi-final, the other contested by PSG and RB Leipzig. France versus Germany twice over.
The defeat and the manner of it are bound to leave question marks over Guardiola’s future. Predictably, there were suggestions that he has been approached about a return to the Nou Camp to try to rescue Barcelona and Lionel Messi from the chaos that has enveloped them. City’s lame performance for much of this game here will fuel those rumours.
Before the match, it had felt as if this condensed conclusion to the competition in the Portuguese capital was a chance to right a wrong. City have played breathtaking football in the Premier League in the four years since he arrived at the club but have never even reached the Champions League semi-finals under his leadership.
Guardiola won the competition twice in his first three attempts while he was with Barcelona but has not made the final since 2011. This had represented a chance for him to become only the sixth manager in history to win the competition with two different clubs and only the fourth – after Bob Paisley, Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane – to win it three times. It is the legacy his contribution to the game deserves.
Maybe now there will be fresh denials that there is any pressure on Guardiola to win the Champions League with City but the idea the City hierarchy are content with consistently falling short is a fallacy. It is also patronising beyond belief, as if little City would be silly to dream of joining the giants of European football. The reality is that City are one of football’s giants. They just need to win the Champions League to confirm it. The sobering truth is they are not getting any closer.
And if there isn’t any pressure on them to win the Champions League, there should be. It is what any ambitious club of a certain size and backed by a certain amount of wealth aspires to. Why would a team as brilliant as City and as expensively assembled not want to win it?
For a club like Real Madrid or Barcelona, as Luka Modric said last week, no matter what they win, if they do not win the Champions League, they feel their season is ‘not complete’. It should be the same with City. They are good enough. They just need to start the habit because once they win one, the belief it gives them, the status it will give them as a club, will push them to win again and again. There is no sign of that happening.
They should have taken the first step towards the semi-finals in the third minute when a clever ball from Joao Cancelo inside the full back allowed Sterling to get free inside the Lyon box. Sterling tried to pull the ball back to Gabriel Jesus who was unmarked in the middle but it was kicked away by Fernando Marcal. City should have made more of the opportunity. It was the best one they were going to get for the rest of the half.
Lyon may have come into the game as heavy underdogs but they played with assurance and composure from the start. Their hunger in the press and their speed on the counter attack unsettled City who, for once, looked slow and laboured. It soon became evident this was not going to be the stroll for Guardiola’s side so many had predicted.
Lyon were resolute in defence and lightning quick in transition and they took the lead out of nothing midway through the half. Karl Ekambi sprinted on to a long ball over the top and when Eric Garcia tackled him, the ball squirted straight to Maxwel Cornet. Ederson had come out to try to stifle the danger and Cornet bent it round him with his left into the corner of the net.
It was the fourth goal Cornet had scored against Manchester City in three Champions League games and it unleashed a new stream of doubts about whether Guardiola had over-thought his selection again. City, who had started with a back three, were struggling to get their most potent weapon, Kevin de Bruyne, on the ball. They dominated possession, of course, but little of it threatened the Lyon goal. Lyon looked relatively comfortable.
Rodri should have done better than hit a tame sidefoot shot straight at Lopes from ten yards out but where there is De Bruyne, there is hope and in first half injury time he hit a brilliant pass with the outside of his right boot behind the Lyon back four. Sterling was on it in a flash but he could not control it first time and it gave Lopes time to spread himself at his feet and block his shot.
Ten minutes after half time, Guardiola tried to fix things. He brought on Riyad Mahrez for Fernandino, switched to a back four and moved De Bruyne into a more central position in a rank of three behind Gabriel Jesus. City improved. De Bruyne whistled two free kicks narrowly over the bar. It was a glimpse of what might have been.
The substitution and the change of formation had transformed the mood of the game and 20 minutes from the end, City equalised. Sterling chased a ball to the byline and turned inside his marker. He saw De Bruyne sprinting forward and played the ball into his path. De Bruyne is way too good to miss that kind of opportunity and he placed it perfectly out of the reach of Lopes and into the bottom corner.
Manchester City were brimming with confidence now and swarmed all over Lyon but just when the tide seemed to have turned, Lyon struck again. It was a contentious goal. There appeared to be a foul on Aymeric Laporte as the ball was played through to Dembele but play was waved on and Dembele advanced on Ederson before slotting the ball past him and into the net.
Manchester City seemed stunned but Sterling will be haunted by one of the misses of the season – or any season – when he lifted a simple tap-in from three yards out over the bar. Dembele completed the shock 60 seconds later when he prodded home after Ederson had failed to hold a tame shot from Houssem Aouar.
Guardiola’s Champions League hoodoo with City endures.
MATCH FACTS AND PLAYER RATINGS
Manchester City (3-1-4-2): Ederson 5.5; Fernandinho 4.5 (Mahrez 56′ 7), Eric Garcia 5, Laporte 4.5; Rodri 5 (Silva 84′); Walker 6, Gundogan 6, De Bruyne 7, Cancelo 6.5; Gabriel Jesus 6.5, Sterling 6
Subs not used: Bravo, Stones, Zinchenko, Bernardo Silva, Mendy, Otamendi, Foden, Doyle, Palmer, Bernabe
Booked: Fernandinho, Rodri
Goal: De Bruyne 69′
Lyon (3-5-2): Lopes 6.5; Denayer 7, Marcelo 6.5, Marcal 7.5; Dubois 6 (Tete 74′ 6), Caqueret 7.5, Guimaraes 7 (Mendes 70′ 6), Aouar 7, Cornet 8; Toko Ekambi 7.5 (Rene-Adelaide 87′), Depay 6 (Dembele 75′ 7.5)
Subs not used: Diomande, Andersen, Da Silva, Traore, Thiago, Cherki, Jean Lucas, Tatarusanu, Bard
Booked: Dubois, Marcelo
Goals: Cornet 24′, Dembele 79′, 87′
Referee: Danny Makkelie (Holland)