MADRID — Pep Guardiola might just be starting to believe that he will never win the Champions League with Manchester City.
Leading by two goals on aggregate against Real Madrid in the Santiago Bernabeu and just a matter of stoppage time away from facing Liverpool in the final, City imploded to commit one of football’s most unthinkable meltdowns and blow their chance of reaching a second successive final.
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As for actually winning the competition that has become an obsession for the club, and Guardiola, another year goes by with somebody else getting their hands on the trophy. While Real and Liverpool go head-to-head in the Stade de France outside of Paris, Guardiola will probably still be wondering how on earth his team could lose this semifinal 6-5 on aggregate.
This season’s knock-out stage has shown us that you should never, ever write off Real, with Carlo Ancelotti’s team overturning what appeared to be lost causes to defeat Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea at the Bernabeu in previous rounds. But with 90 minutes on the clock and City holding a two-goal lead — Riyad Mahrez’s 73rd minute goal had put them 1-0 ahead on the night and two goals clear on aggregate — Real’s luck had surely run out.
They were up against Guardiola’s City, perhaps the only the team capable of halting Liverpool’s pursuit of a Quadruple, and the Premier League leaders had been so assured in the Bernabeu that goalkeeper Ederson had spent 89 minutes largely as a spectator. But what happened during the six minutes of stoppage time may haunt Guardiola and his ambitious club forever.
Real’s fightback was typical of the great club that they are, but no team, at any level, should concede twice in stoppage time, especially when a place in the Champions League final is at stake. Some clubs just have a knack of getting the job done and winning European trophies. Real and Liverpool, who will meet in the final on May 28, are perhaps the two greatest examples of teams who know how to win when it matters.
“The greatness of this club. It’s just that. It’s a club that doesn’t allow you to give up when it looks like it’s all over, it gives you the strength to carry on and continue and fight and believe, that’s what we did,” said Ancelotti when asked how his side pulled off the comeback.
“The weight of this shirt, all the history of this club, the pride we all have to be part of this club, a bit of everything.”
City don’t have the football heritage of either of those historic clubs and it showed. They stumbled once again and, despite the billions invested in the club by Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan, City have still to win the Champions League and the scars from this semifinal exit will run deep for a long time.
It is a testament to the resolve of this Real team that they managed to pull off one of the Champions League’s most memorable comebacks, but City only have themselves to blame for their humiliation. On three occasions, they opened a two-goal lead in the first-leg at the Etihad, but failed to keep Real at bay and in the Bernabeu, they appeared to have produced the perfect game-plan, even though star men such as Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden failed to perform to their usual high standards.
Yet they just couldn’t kill Real off. Substitute Jack Grealish twice went close to making it 2-0 on the night, and surely finishing the tie, with two surging runs in the closing stages, but on each occasion, the £100 million midfielder failed to score.
In the Premier League, City always seem to enjoy the small margins going in their favour, but the ball bounces differently for them in the Champions League. But still, regardless of their missed chances, it all boils down to conceding twice in stoppage time when Guardiola and his players could have been forgiven for picturing the Eiffel Tower from the Parisian hotel window.
“We were close but football is unpredictable. Sometimes it is like this and you have to accept it,” Guardiola said afterward.
That has nothing to do with bad luck in a competition. It is basic bad defending. Karim Benzema was allowed space to tee up Rodrygo for Real’s first goal in the 90th minute, while City’s defenders then left the same player to head in from six yards just a minute later, with Marco Asensio given the time to cross from the right. Where was City’s game management and determination to run down the clock?
Perhaps their dominance of English football has worked against City at this level of the Champions League because they get tested so rarely. There is a naivety in their play when the pressure is on in Europe and it cost them spectacularly against Real. Of course, at 2-1 on the night, the score was 5-5 on aggregate, so City went into extra-time with the tie still alive and the opportunity to reclaim the lead.
But their belief had evaporated and Guardiola was at a loss to help them from the sidelines. The former Barcelona coach, whose second and last Champions League win with Barca came in 2011, watched on increasing desperation and he probably knew the game was up when referee Daniele Orsato awarded Real a penalty on 94 minutes following a Ruben Dias foul on Benzema.
Benzema, who scored from the spot with a Panenka penalty in the first-leg, resisted the temptation to try that again, instead shooting low to Ederson’s left to make it 3-1 and put Real ahead for the first time in the tie. And although they had almost half an hour to get back into the tie, City were gone. Real were energised, driven on by the crowd and the history of the white shirt, and the outcome, from that point, was never in doubt.
It is Real who will now face Liverpool — the third time the two clubs will have met in the final. As for City, the wait goes on. After this humbling, brutal experience, it is anyone’s guess as to when it will ever end.