Manchester City should probably have been the champions of Europe this season, but they won’t be. There’s nothing new in that story. Manchester City should also probably have been the champions of Europe last season but underperformed in the final and lost out to Chelsea. This time around, they’ve fallen at the feet of Real Madrid after controlling vast portions of both legs of the semi-final round. As admirable as Real Madrid’s powers of recovery are, this is a loss that the Citizens brought on themselves. They conceded goals too cheaply in the first leg, coming away with a 4-3 win that could and should have been 4-0 or 4-1. The same happened in the second leg as the team conceded twice in the 90th minute to lose the tie.
This is familiar territory for manager Pep Guardiola, who has gone a full decade without winning the UEFA Champions League. He’s undoubtedly one of the best managers of his generation – perhaps even one of the best of all time – and can still deliver yet another Premier League trophy to Manchester City’s fans this season. To do so, he’ll have to pip Liverpool to the post. Ironically he’ll now be hoping that the Anfield club is distracted by preparations for the Champions League final against Real Madrid, leaving City to focus on the league. There’s also the FA Cup final to play for, which will be contested between Manchester City and Liverpool again. That’s where English football is in 2022, with two clubs so far ahead of the competition that the league is in danger of becoming like Scotland, where Celtic and Rangers lead the pack, and nobody else comes close. For all of City’s domestic might, though, the European triumph that would validate the club remains elusive.
There has been talk that City or Guardiola are cursed. It’s not hard to see why people would think such a thing. There have been seasons where City were untouchable in the Premier League and looked like the greatest team in the world for months on end, but in those crucial moments where it mattered the most in Europe, something has let them down. There’s no curse, though – it’s all down to human error and gambling. Since the departure of Sergio Aguero, Guardiola has gambled on not having a world-class full-time striker at the club. You don’t win the Champions League without gambling, but even for a hardened casino player, that’s probably a gamble too far. The irony is that City’s big rivals Liverpool know a thing or two about casino gambling, as they have a branded online slots game of their own. Sister Site tells us that it’s one of the most popular sports-themed games across the entire network of casino sister sites. Perhaps City need to embrace that casino philosophy themselves because their conservative approach to using strikers has come back to bite them.
The issue isn’t that Manchester City struggles to score. They score lots of goals, with the burden shared across midfield players like Kevin de Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez. Gabriel Jesus plays as a striker and contributes goals of his own, but even the most ardent fan of the Brazilian would have to concede that he isn’t in the world-class bracket. The issue for City is that without a recognised top-quality striker, there are only so many ways they can play. Opponents know how City’s team will line up because Pep’s lack of firepower means there are only so many options available to him. More importantly, that same lack of firepower leaves the team vulnerable when things go wrong. When the game against Real Madrid went to extra time, City badly needed the option of throwing on more forward players to chase the game. They couldn’t do that because no such option existed on the bench. All Guardiola could do was throw Sterling on and ask the midfield to push further forward, and that wasn’t enough.
There are rumours that the club has already made plans to address this problem for next season. Nothing is confirmed yet, but various “in the know” sources claim that a deal has already been done for Borussia Dortmund’s outstanding young Norwegian striker Erling Haaland. The 21-year-old is one of the hottest properties in world football and has scored 85 goals in 87 appearances for his current club. There have been rumours about Haaland leaving Dortmund almost from the moment he joined the club two years ago, but City are thought to have secured a deal in principle by triggering the £63m release clause in his current contract. In doing so, they’ve beaten Real Madrid to his signature. Haaland wants to play for Madrid at some point in his career, but Guardiola is thought to have convinced him that he can spend five years in Manchester and then go to Madrid still in his 20s and have an impact there. The fact that the striker’s father Alfie-Inge Haaland once played for Manchester City is also thought to have been a factor in the move. Assuming the reports are true, City will likely be a very different proposition to play against next season.
Lurking in the background behind all of this is the spectre of Guardiola’s contract at Manchester City. As things stand, it expires at the end of the 2022/2023 season, by which time the Spanish coach will have been at the Etihad Stadium for seven years. He’s already been with City for longer than he spent with any other club and has suggested in the past that he’ll move on at the end of his current deal. However, if he were to leave without bringing the Champions League trophy to City, it would feel like his job wasn’t done. Jurgen Klopp, his great rival at Liverpool, has recently re-committed himself to stay at Anfield until the end of the 2026 season. With Haaland coming in and work still to be done, it’s hard to imagine Guardiola walking away. Manchester City has yet again been taught a brutal, painful lesson in Europe. Guardiola will surely want to learn from that and grow rather than lick his wounds and walk away, but time will tell.