Ten talking points after Manchester City’s loss at the Champions League final last month.
1. A shocking performance on their biggest night
On the face of it, Manchester City’s fans have no reason to be upset after losing their maiden Champions League final at Porto’s Dragao stadium to Chelsea 1-0. Chelsea had been there before, twice, and done it once too, back in 2012. They had the experience of a stage which the sky blues were unfamiliar with. Yet, what disappointed most was the manner of defeat. At no point in the match did Man City look like having control over the proceedings. City with six attacking players on the field got just three chances in this game… Raheem Sterling took a bad touch in the first instance, Phil Foden’s close range shot was blocked by Antonio Rudiger and Riyadh Mahrez’s volley kissed the frame in what turned out to be the last chance for City to win a match they had come in as clear favorites. The Chelsea goalkeeper, Eduardo Mendy, didn’t need to make a single notable save, forget being tested throughout the match. This is a City team that had scored 131 goals over the season to Chelsea’s 98 strikes and yet, the 1-0 loss in the final, flatters to deceive. A more prolific Chelsea frontline would have won this match 3-0 too. That pains more. City came into this match as the best team in Europe, they ended the night with a tag of ‘just a domestic bully’.
2. Best chance to win the Champions League gone
A weekend before, City had sauntered to a 5-0 win over Everton, in a game they could have scored ten goals. On the same night, Chelsea lost to Aston Villa in a game which they needed to win to safely progress to top four position in the league – which they eventually achieved due to other results falling in their favour. Prior to that game, Chelsea had lost two of the three games they played – once to Arsenal in the league and then to Leicester City in the FA Cup final. In the fortnight leading to the Champions League final, Man City had wrapped up the EPL title and got to rest and rotate their entire squad, so much so that their 37 year old third choice goalkeeper Scott Carson made a premier league debut in one of the games. In other words, City were having fun and refreshing their main players, that fortnight, while Chelsea’ first team was sweating it out. As if this is not enough, City will seldom get a fourth placed (any) league team ever to play against at a Champions league final. The gap between the two teams over the season was 19 league points. The two losses Chelsea inflicted over Man City, in 2021, till then, were against much changed XIs from the sky blues. Even those wins for Chelsea had little disclaimers attached to them – in the recent league win, City fielded a second string XI and Sergio Aguero got a penalty kick to make it 2-0 – which he missed. Every pundit agreed, there was no looking beyond Man City’s first XI being third time lucky over Chelsea at Porto and finally lifting the Champions league trophy. Sadly, that didn’t happen.
3. Guardiola only a ‘domestic bully’
Pep Guardiola’s European chronicles without Messi, has a messy look about it; not withstanding a credible hattrick of semifinal appearances with Bayern Munich. In the subsequent years the German giants made to the semis only twice in five years, including in their title winning campaign in 2019/20. Manchester City in those five years, under Guardiola, have a European record not at par with their ambitions. In three of those five years, City won the tough Premier League either with a margin of above 15 points or themselves hauled 98 points or more. Yet their exits in the Champions league tournament tells another story. They lost to Monaco despite a 5-3 win from the home leg – I can’t recall any other English club losing a knockout tie after having a two goal advantage. Then in the following years, they lost to Liverpool, Tottenham, Lyon and last month to Chelsea. Three of these ties were in Quarters stage, three of the conquerors are English teams whom they should be knowing in and out. Guardiola’s freak team combination experimentations on the biggest stage, in each of these five ties, contributed to the downfall. The tag ‘domestic bully’ does fit right, to go with the words ‘revolutionary’, no mean feat both.
4. Why does Pep experiment in big games?
Guardiola has been criticized for his team selections after each of his Champions League exits – whether at Barcelona, Munich or Manchester. Yet it hasn’t changed him. Pep has always been a freak, a revolutionary and prone to changing his team setups. He is like a chemist always inside his lab experimenting with forty solutions in beakers – pouring one into another, mixing, heating etc. Not too long ago the media went gaga over his use of part time left back Joao Cancelo into a full time revolving midfielder. When down in the dumps, on Christmas eve 2020, ranked 8th on the EPL table, Pep’s master stroke of getting Ilkay Gundogan to play an attacking role was one major reason, the sky blues propelled to number one in the table within a month. There are countless other instances where he has experimented and got lauded. Let’s not forget 80% of the teams in England, Spain and Germany now play out from the back – after seeing Pep do it repeatedly, and successfully. Yes, Pep may have faltered in the Champions League final last month by not starting Fernandinho. Yet, even after the Brazilian came in for the crucial last 30 minutes of the game, it is not that City had any remarkable change in fortune, possession or in creating chances to score.
5. The curious story of Raheem Sterling
As long as Guardiola is the poster boy of the Man City team, it helps shield the other players from criticism. So while the gaffer is being blamed for losing the final at Porto, it sweeps under the carpet the fact that aside Phil Foden, each of his players had a bad game. From Premier League’s player of the year Ruben Dias to the hero of the semi-final, Riyadh Mahrez, you cannot name a single player that night who didn’t make one sloppy mistake after another at Porto. Worst of the lot, was Raheem Sterling. Across websites, in players ratings given after the match, he scored the lowest marks. For Raheem, today culminates the end of a five year cycle. After a poor Euros 2016, just when he was vilified roundly by the press and England fans, at the lowest point of his career, an unexpected phone call came from Guardiola to assure him, that he is the best. For majority of the subsequent years, he was on fire and easily amongst the top five players in EPL. But come 2021, his stocks have fallen and so too his first team appearances. Yet Pep called on him on the biggest night – partly for his good scoring record vs Chelsea and partly for giving his experienced man a shot to redeem his season on the biggest stage. But Sterling was a mess all night – well pocketed by Chelsea youngster right back Reece James. After the final, there has been reports that Sterling is up for sale, potentially to Arsenal or Tottenham – even after discounting them as nascent rumours, it has demotion written all over it for the left winger. Raheem, while a big role model off the field for his fight against racism and for charitable causes, a new cycle in his on-field career starts. The coming Euro 2020 and the subsequent season, could be the most important make or break year in front of him. Will he fight to regain back his elite status, amongst the best in England, or will his story go down the Theo Walcott way.
6. The Dead Wood
While Raheem Sterling is standing on the precipice of his Man City career, there are several dead wood ion the sky blue contingent, who need to be shipped out. Benjamin Mendy is the obvious first name and if a seasoned left back is going to be purchased, as indicated by the club management, then one amongst Nathan Ake, Aymeric Laporte and Joao Cancelo could be surplus to requirements also. This conclusion runs with two assumptions – that Fernandinho will stay put and can do the backup defender’s role and Oleksandr Zinchenko is not for sale. With a new striker due to be signed in and now that Phil Foden is a regular starter; it means Gabriel Jesus, Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan’s game time for the forthcoming season has questions attached to them. This conclusion also runs with an assumption that the on-field minutes of Zinchenko (could even be as midfielder), Ferran Torres, Liam Delap and Harwood-Bellis should see some increment from last season. There is going to be a revamp in the squad for sure.
7. The Art of Fight Back – lessons from Liverpool
The manner of City’s Champions League final defeat can deflate a few in the team and put mental block in their minds. It was after all, in this current season, that the team finally broke their ‘quarterfinal’ curse voodoo under Pep; and yet could not win the title. Having won three of the last five premiership titles, some players may not be as excited about the coming season due to ‘been there, done that’ already. Which is where Man City need some fresh faces inducted in the starting XI – carrying the sort of fire Phil Foden had in him, the last season. For further inspiration they should look at rivals Liverpool. Back in 2018/19 season, the reds were on verge of winning the title after 29 long years. And despite a stellar run with a 97 points haul, they fell short agonizingly, by one point. Their world crashed in a heap and one thought this would deflate them for some years. But Jurgen Klopp and his troops stood up again and the following season played even better to win their dream premiership title. Man City should take cue from that example.
8. Khaldoon Speak
The leader rallying the Man City team to leap back to their winning ways is none other that dream chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak. Dream I mention, because the chairman and owner (Sheikh Mansoor) are every other club’s fantasy of an ideal ‘chairman – owner’ combo at the helm. In a recent interview after defeat in the Champions League final, Khaldoon said the following.
“You can’t win every year, but year in year out, we’re going to be there, it’s about going forward whenever we have setbacks, regrouping and then coming back stronger.”
“The record of the last 10 years gives me and should give everyone the confidence and knowledge to know that we’re going to come back, and as sad as we all are at losing the Champions League final, we’ll be back in that final.”
9. Transfer Window
These are words of a ‘dream’ club management who is going to back the players and team management to have another fantastic season ahead. As usual is the case with Manchester City, several top players are being linked to join the club. As fans we know from a Haaland, to Mbappe, to Lewandowski, to Kane, to Grealish, to Niguez; just about any big name could be entering through the front door. (Disclaimer – Not Barcelona’s Sergi Roberto though, if reports are to be believed! Roberto coming in would be a downgrade, not any upgrade!). Cash will be splashed, the team will have new stars as the upcoming season promises to be as interesting as the preceding one.
10. Looking Ahead
The pressure of winning trophies has been amplified in the modern social media era. No thanks to one Jose Mourinho who often listed his trophy cabinet details in interviews while mocking other managers. While winning is the ultimate joy, there is more sustainable joy of backing your football team day in and out, twice a week. The Dutch team under Johan Cryuff won much lesser trophies than other great teams of the game, but decades down till date, they are considered the most revolutionary ‘total football’ team of all time.
This year, thanks to the pandemic, Man City played 11 of the last 12 months almost at a rate of one game every four days. City played 61 games last season to Liverpool’s 52. Over the last four seasons while Liverpool has won a PL and a Champions League trophy, they have played 15% lesser games than City which means Cityzens get to enjoy, follow, open beer cans in front of the TV, read match previews, call over friends, wake up late nights, watch post match analysis and highlights around 15% more than Liverpool fans.
City will continue to entertain us that 15% more than anyone else, pump in more goals than anyone else, bring out their glittering array of stars and new tactical nuances, 15% more than anyone else. Season after season. Last season was an excellent one. No English team has won the premiership after being as low ranked as 8th on Christmas Day. With big names expected to come in, a defence that looks more solid than it ever has, already conquering last season without much contribution from the legendary Sergio Aguero, and the likes of Phil Foden and Ferran Torres to add more doses of excitement, another brilliant season awaits us. Yes, Pep Guardiola, the scientist, will be experimenting something new, this season too. The chances of that succeeding, the media going gaga over it and other teams trying to copy that, are high too.
Fasten your seat belts. Another roller coaster ride awaits to start!
Adieu Kun! Love you every minute, and even more on the 94th minute.