By Andrew Warshaw
August 17 – First City, then United. Within 24 hours of each other, the European dreams, hopes and expectations of Manchester’s two rival football clubs were shattered for another season over the weekend.
City’s inability under Pep Guardiola to move beyond the quarterfinals of the Champions League, this time shock victims of French underdogs Lyon, has been rightly analysed and picked apart by a stream of football pundits.
After all, this was supposed to be Guardiola’s time. The time when – following the elimination of Real Madrid (ironically by City themselves in the previous round), Juventus and of course Barcelona – the Spaniard could see an easier-than-usual route and lay his hands on the one trophy City have never won and have craved season after season.
And yet, due to widely publicised tactical mistakes which Guardiola hardly acknowledged (if at all), a glaring miss by England’s normally deadly striker Raheem Sterling and an uncharacteristic error by ordinarily dependable goalkeeper Ederson, City came up short yet again in pursuit of club football’s greatest prize.
Guardiola is rightly considered one of the finest coaches in world football. Yet ever since leaving Barcelona he has failed to succeed on the biggest stage of all – despite, at City at least, having all the playing staff money can buy.
It is highly possible that City would have been blown away by Bayern in the semi-finals but we will never know. Their inability to put away a well-organised but unspectacular Lyon team says much about the psychological frailty of a club – and maybe a manager too – who on their day are irrepressible but too often forget those days when the crunch comes in Europe.
The inquest into why Guardiola switched to an unfamiliar formation to take on the French side will go on for weeks, if not months. Quite why he didn’t stick to his usual shape will haunt everyone connected with City who were expecting at least a semi-final spot.
City are no great shakes defensively, agreed, but Guardiola’s decision to give the opposition so much respect was nevertheless baffling given all his attacking options. Now they have to go again next season but whether they will ever have a better chance is debatable.
If United fans were overjoyed at seeing their cross-town rivals comes up short yet again, they too were crying in their beer 24 hours later in the Europa League.
Not once, not twice but three times, United reached the semifinals of a knockout competition in a single season (Europa League, FA Cup and League Cup) yet failed to get over the line in any of them, earning them the unwanted soubriquet of nearly men under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Like City, United had an array of attacking talent but couldn’t make it count against canny five-time champions Sevilla on Sunday, going down 2-1 despite taking the lead with yet another penalty and carving out a string of clear cut chances.
Before last season’s Premier League began Solskjaer and United’s fans would certainly have taken finishing third in the table, which is what they achieved. And in Bruno Fernandes they have arguably been the signing of the season.
But in reality, just qualifying for the Champions League is the least a club of the stature of United should be aspiring to. Going three seasons without a trophy hasn’t happened at Old Trafford for over 30 years, an alarming statistic which will only increase the pressure on the Norwegian in the next campaign.
You could argue that the mini-tournament format being used for the climax of the European season is a lottery, however exciting it is. The best team on the night hasn’t always emerged victorious. On chances, possession and refereeing decisions, both City and United can consider themselves unlucky.
But the same situations happen throughout cup football and have happened once too often for the two Manchester clubs when it matters most. It certainly makes for an interesting transfer window over next few weeks.
For the first time then, two French and two German clubs will now contest the semi-finals of the Champions League. A Bayern-Paris St Germain showdown is a mouth-watering prospect, the first of them an unstoppable goal machine, the second desperate – just like Manchester City were – to make their cash-rich Arab owners happy to see their investment pay off by winning the trophy for the first time.
But given how unpredictable the one-off format in Lisbon has been as a spectacle, even without fans present, no-one would rule out an all French final between PSG and Lyon or all German one between Bayern and Leipzig – just as we had an all-English climax last season.
Stranger things have happened.
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