How to cure ‘City-itis’? Pep Guardiola has new template to end Champions League woe

How to cure ‘City-itis’? Pep Guardiola has new template to end Champions League woe

Pep Guardiola was back in an old haunt and he wanted a picture to mark the occasion. He roped in an old friend. It was in the Allianz Arena in Munich and he had Manchester City’s CEO Ferran Soriano alongside him. City’s run of nine consecutive victories had actually ended but a 1-1 draw against Bayern Munich had clinched a 4-1 aggregate triumph. Even for a man who has achieved as much as Guardiola, it was worth getting a memento.

Guardiola had three seasons with Bayern, reaching the Champions League semi-finals in each. He has spent much of his seven years at City arguing that the aristocracy of European football have an inherent advantage in the Champions League, some kind of institutional memory that clicks in. City’s possible route to glory now is paved with the past: Bayern in the last eight, the 14-time winners Real Madrid in the last four, Inter Milan in the final. Whether Helenio Herrera, Sandro Mazzola and Giacinto Facchetti will prove much of an advantage in Istanbul remains to be seen. Study the last 12 years, after all, and Inter, with a solitary previous quarter-final appearance, are the rank outsiders on Saturday.

But perhaps City have always seen themselves as the outsiders who are desperate to be part of the club: the club of European Cup winners. When Guardiola has said he would rather win the Premier League than the Champions League, or that it is harder to – and he has made both claims over the years – it has scarcely rung true. There are many City supporters who would rather get the better of Manchester United than clubs from Milan, Munich or Madrid, but for manager and hierarchy alike, it has felt like the holy grail.

It has been 15 years since Sheikh Mansour’s takeover, 12 since the modern City made their Champions League bow. There are two pertinent comparisons among suddenly moneyed clubs: Chelsea who – unlike the City of 2008 – were already in Europe’s elite competition when bought and who, after a similar assortment of agonising near-misses, won the Champions League nine years into a new regime; and Paris Saint-Germain, who reached the final the year before City but have otherwise been the wrong sort of role models. The serial French champions have five last-16 exits in the last seven seasons; since signing Lionel Messi, they have not reached the quarter-finals. Their emphasis on superstars, on buying success, has been thoroughly discredited.

City have taken another approach. Indeed, an examination of its pillars – hiring and supporting a world-class manager, having a defined style of play with a clear commitment to teamwork, astute recruitment over several seasons and an environment where footballers improve – would seem the basis of a Champions League-winning campaign; it was for Liverpool in 2019, after all.

And yet recent years have seen other methods prevail, whether mid-season managerial appointments like Roberto Di Matteo, Hansi Flick and Thomas Tuchel having an immediate impact or Real’s innate Realness, their preternatural sense of purpose that Guardiola feared, and amiable man-managers in Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane taking the trophy back to the Bernabeu. City, in contrast, accumulated years of hard-luck stories, near-misses and missteps under Guardiola, a strange combination of the away-goals rule, VAR, cruel late drama and “overthinking”, a narrative so established the Catalan references it, costing them.

Man City have endured their share of Champions League pain over recent years (EPA)
Man City have endured their share of Champions League pain over recent years (EPA)

For City, 12 years of the Champions League divides into three phases and three reigns. There was the underachievement under Roberto Mancini, with two tough group-stage draws and a disappointing campaign followed by a disastrous one; in 2011-12, the Italian alleged Carlos Tevez refused to come off the bench in Munich, but the real nadir was a winless 2012-13; along with fraying relations with his players and employers, Mancini’s wretched record in Europe helped seal his fate.

Manuel Pellegrini started the run of 10 successive appearances in the knockout stages. He twice beat Bayern in the group, twice lost to Barcelona in the last 16, when a flurry of City red cards hinted at defensive struggles amid over-attacking tactics and an inability to cope with the best, and once ended up apologising to the people of Sweden after an intemperate criticism of referee Jonas Eriksson. The first time City drew Barcelona it was in part because of an embarrassing miscalculation by Pellegrini: leading 3-2 at Bayern in the last group game, he took off Sergio Aguero without realising an extra goal would have seen City top the pool and avoid the favourites. Pellegrini later steered City to the previously uncharted waters of the semi-finals in 2016, only to go out with a whimper to Real; after being outclassed by Barcelona, it felt like a sign that an inferiority complex remained.

But at least Pellegrini’s three Champions League exits were to La Liga’s duopoly. Guardiola’s first five were either to Ligue Un sides (Monaco in 2017 and Lyon three years later) or clubs who finished 25, 27 and 19 points below them in the Premier League in the respective seasons (Liverpool in 2018, Tottenham in 2019 and Chelsea in the 2021 final). Indeed, when comparatively unfancied sides overachieved in the Champions League, there was often a common denominator: they eliminated City en route.

Guardiola has been unable to capture the much-coveted Champions League trophy at City (Getty)
Guardiola has been unable to capture the much-coveted Champions League trophy at City (Getty)

The “City-itis” former manager Joe Royle diagnosed in the 1990s – the sense that anything that could go wrong, would, and often in tragicomic circumstances – felt eradicated in the Premier League, but not the Champions League.

There was the infamously disallowed Raheem Sterling “winner” against Tottenham – as Fernando Llorente’s hip-goal, with the suspicion the ball had brushed his hand, instead proved decisive; it also followed an Aguero penalty miss in the first leg. There were the two-goal leads City had and lost, to Monaco and then to Real last season. There was the Rodrygo double in the Bernabeu last term, with two goals in as many minutes.

There was Liverpool’s destructive blitz of three goals in 19 minutes at Anfield and Guardiola’s self-destructive exit in the second leg, sent off for protesting about a Leroy Sane goal that was chalked off. There were more contentious calls: perhaps Moussa Dembele fouled Aymeric Laporte before he put Lyon 2-1 up. There was Kevin de Bruyne’s fractured nose and eye socket after Antonio Rudiger’s bloodcurdling challenge in Porto. There were the misses: Sterling against Lyon and against Chelsea, Jack Grealish against Real.

There was the recurring theme of City getting caught on the counterattack: by Monaco, then Liverpool, then Spurs. There were the ever-present issues of Guardiola’s choices backfiring: Laporte at left-back and Ilkay Gundogan off the right wing at Anfield, De Bruyne on the bench away at Tottenham, no defensive midfielder versus Chelsea and, the worst of the lot, three centre-backs in an overly defensive team who faced Lyon.

That was a one-off game and City have lost a lone two-legged tie in four seasons; even then, they were leading after 180 minutes – if not injury time – against Real. But Lyon can assume an almost disproportionate importance. City are unbeaten in 26 home Champions League games, scoring 85 goals; their last defeat was to Lyon. Otherwise, they have turned their groups into processions, topping the pool in their last six seasons. They have often been prolific: sometimes even in ties that brought their elimination.

The 2021 final loss to Chelsea marked a particularly low point (Getty)
The 2021 final loss to Chelsea marked a particularly low point (Getty)

Arguably, over Guardiola’s seven seasons, they have had only had two remotely emphatic exits: to Lyon and Liverpool. Tales of what might have been have abounded. Yet, as rivals could point out, there is a still greater one.

City were given a two-year Champions League ban by Uefa in February 2020, it was overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport five months later because many of their alleged breaches of financial fair play were not established or time-barred; they had been previously sanctioned. The competition’s anthem has tended to be booed at the Etihad but an essential allegation – that funding from the club’s owners came disguised in inflated sponsorship deals – forms part of the case in the Premier League’s 115 charges against them.

It is part of the backdrop. For some, theirs would be a tarnished triumph if they beat Inter. For others, it would be the culmination of an epic quest. There have been cases for arguing that City have been the best team in Europe at various points in recent years. They have never had that official status, however. Guardiola noted recently that, in the last three seasons, City have reached two finals and one semi-final; he could have added that they led for 178 minutes of that semi-final against Real. It is an admirable record, rendering them the most consistent side in continental competition in that time, but it will count for little without the ultimate prize.

Now, for the second time, they are 90 minutes away. Now the survivor from their first Champions League game of the 21st century is not Aguero or David Silva but Edin Dzeko, a 37-year-old opponent on Saturday and a throwback to their past. Compared to their last final, they have gone from false nine – in De Bruyne – to genuine No 9, in Haaland, from the far west of Europe, in Porto, to the brink of Asia, in Istanbul. It is a curiously fitting venue. When City’s greatest team of the 20th century won the title in 1968, the charismatic, quotable assistant manager Malcolm Allison said they would “terrify the cowards of Europe”. City duly drew Fenerbahce in the first round of the European Cup, and went out. But perhaps, more than half a century later, Allison’s bravado will find a form of justification and, finally, City will be champions of Europe.