Manchester City’s latest shock Champions League exit to Lyon left Pep Guardiola in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons as the Catalan coach again tinkered to ill-effect when it mattered most in Europe.
Guardiola, one of the most decorated coaches of all-time with eight league titles to his name in Spain, Germany and England, has now not won the Champions League since the second of his two triumphs in the competition as Barcelona manager in 2011.
City still has never won the Champions League despite the billions spent by the club’s Abu Dhabi owners.
The English side’s early years as Champions League regulars were met with growing pains as they fell to European giants like Barca, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid.
But since Guardiola arrived in Manchester in 2016, City has failed to make it beyond the quarterfinals while exiting to Monaco, Liverpool, Tottenham and now a Lyon side that finished seventh in the curtailed Ligue 1 season.
“Maybe one day we will break these quarterfinals,” said a visibly exhausted Guardiola after a 3-1 defeat riddled with errors at both ends of the field.
“I am not able to do it with these incredible guys.”
Guardiola’s decision to match up Lyon with an unfamiliar 3-5-2 formation that left the creative talents of David Silva, Bernardo Silva, Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden on the bench was just the latest questionable call of his nine-year Champions League drought.
“This one was down to another bout of the too-clever-by-half tinkering that has inexplicably seemed to grip Guardiola on his biggest Champions League nights ever since he last won it,” commented The Times.
Lack of trust
Guardiola’s European woes at City and three years at Bayern have come from conceding in waves.
Monaco won a thrilling 6-6 tie on away goals in 2017, Liverpool thrashed a City team on their way to 100 points in the Premier League 5-1 over two legs and Tottenham scored three times at the Etihad last season.
Guardiola conceded his change of system was borne of a lack of trust in his defense, which saw City meekly surrender their Premier League title to Liverpool without a fight this season.
“They are so fast upfront the way they play and we are not so quick central defenders. I didn’t want to leave them 2 v 2,” he said.
But that problem is rooted in City’s lavish spending on defenders Guardiola cannot rely on.
John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi cost nearly as much as Lyon’s starting XI but watched on from the bench as a 35-year-old converted midfielder Fernandinho and 19-year-old Eric Garcia, who Guardiola admitted last week does not want to extend his contract at the club, started in a back three.
While Guardiola shouldered most of the blame, a familiar cocktail of defensive errors, missed chances and VAR controversy also did for City.
Lyon’s pivotal second goal was allowed to stand despite claims for a foul on Aymeric Laporte by Moussa Dembele.
Goalkeeper Ederson also should have done better for both Dembele’s goals in the final 11 minutes, but in between Raheem Sterling inexplicably did not add to his 31 goals this season by firing over with the goal gaping.
“Different year, same stuff,” said Kevin De Bruyne, whose goal brought City level at 1-1 midway through the second half.
“We need to learn, it’s not good enough.”
City will at least have the chance to try again next year after beating UEFA in the courts to overturn a two-year ban from European competition.
But time is running out for Guardiola to deliver on what he was brought to Manchester to do.
The 49-year-old has one more year left on his contract and will for the first time in his managerial career start a fifth season with the same club in a few weeks time.
For all his domestic success with six major trophies in four years in England, City had already won the Premier League title twice before Guardiola arrived in the Abu Dhabi era.
Winning the Champions League is what his paymasters really want and they need Guardiola to get out of his own head to do it.
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