Manchester City’s participation in the Champions League this season is over, but despite a 5-1 aggregate defeat there is a strange feeling that progression wasn’t particularly far away from the Blues’ grasp.
Refereeing decisions played a part in their exit. So too did an inability to carve out the perfect chance from the pressure they put Liverpool under over two legs. Composure has sorely lacking over the last week and a half.
On another day, Gabriel Jesus would not have seen the flag go up just before he netted at Anfield in the first leg. Nor would Leroy Sane just after he poked the ball beyond Loris Karius on the stroke of half time in the second. Both offside calls were incorrect, and both would have changed the complexion of a tie that ebbed steadily away from Pep Guardiola’s team.
As disappointing as that set of circumstances might be, it’s not the full story. It doesn’t take into account the fact that Liverpool deserved to go through: even if their resolve and nerves would have been tested by an away goal or a doubling of City’s lead just before half time in the second leg, they weren’t subjected to those game-changing factors for various reasons.
Liverpool weren’t given the opportunity to blow it: that was done by Guardiola long before the first goal went in.
In the first leg – and for the first time since August – the Premier League champions-elect didn’t play their normal game. Guardiola, justifiably worried about the threat posed by Liverpool’s front three and their ability to press City’s defenders into a mistake, changed a winning team. Instead of relying on the 4-3-3 which has taken them to the top of the table this season, he switched his personnel and even his formation.
Perhaps that’s what comes from losing just once all season: when it comes to playing that same team again, it’s natural to make allowances and try to change things to prevent a similar outcome. But would City have been better off sticking to the team they’d played most of the season?
Guardiola will have to shoulder some of the blame for City’s traumatic week, but he has not become a bad manager overnight. A sober analysis outside of the pressure cooker environment of the last ten days will show that it was a great season, and one of the very few in the club’s history where they won two trophies in the same season.
But now comes the real assessment of the damage City have suffered, and indeed the blows Guardiola himself has sustained: this weekend, will the pace of Son Heung-Min and the vision of Christian Eriksen merit the same special attention paid to Mohamed Salah and co? Will Harry Kane?
This weekend will reveal just how much Guardiola has been beaten down, or to put it another way, how much this intense period has managed to get into his head. Will he look to revert back to his tried and tested 4-3-3 which has seen his side seemingly run away with the Premier League title? Or will demoralising defeats have an impact beyond simply knocking City out of the Champions League?
In April and May 2011, when his Barcelona side faced Real Madrid four times in 18 days, it was the Catalans who ultimately came out with the best of the duels. Jose Mourinho’s Madrid won the Copa del Rey final which took place in that period, but Barcelona were unbeaten in the other three games. That led to eventual victories in the Champions League and La Liga.
Guardiola has been on the receiving end of a similarly intense April this season. We’ll now see how he deals with being on that side of it.
In times of crisis, Guardiola doubles down. His teams don’t usually change their styles because of defeat, but rather just go even further to the extreme. Saturday night’s team selection will be telling.