Watching Liverpool prepare themselves for a momentous evening in Rome will make painful viewing for all at Manchester City.
The second leg of the Champions League semifinal looks all but a formality after Liverpool’s thrilling 5-2 first leg win at Anfield. The splendour and the majesty of the occasion will not be lost on City, whose sole experience of this stage of the competition came in 2015-16 during the last days of Manuel Pellegrini’s tenure as coach at the Etihad.
Despite a three-year stay decorated with goals and flowing football, the Chilean’s reign at City came to the kind of conclusion that satisfied few. Having been set lofty targets by the club’s management, Pellegrini had seemed to be well on the way with a debut season that brought a goal-strewn league title plus the League Cup, won against Sunderland at Wembley.
Things faded, however, and Pellegrini left many of those dreams unfulfilled. If domestic failure was bad enough, the lack of obvious progress in the Champions League seemed to hurt even more.
City had started life in the Champions League at something of a disadvantage, with UEFA’s quotient scheme often leaving them saddled with impossibly difficult groups to escape. Their inaugural season saw City paired with Bayern Munich and Napoli, while the second season was even worse, with the club landing in a group with only league title holders (ironically a throwback to the old European Cup, solely for league winners) in Dortmund, Ajax and Real Madrid.
While supporters buzzed at the prospect of visiting the cathedrals of Europe to watch their long-malfunctioning club in action, the directors’ glances fell on balance sheets and global projection. For City’s grand plan to come to proper fruition, serious progress towards the latter stages of Europe’s premier football competition would have to be achieved.
When City did finally manage to haul themselves out of a group stage, at the third time of asking in 2013-14, they immediately bumped into Barcelona and were dispatched from the tournament. A year later, City made it through a tough group containing Roma and Bayern but once again collided with Barcelona and were knocked out.
Having presided over the two defeats to Barcelona, Pellegrini’s third season in charge brought greater success. A group stage fraught with danger once more (Juventus, Sevilla and Monchengladbach appeared to be part of a very finely balanced foursome) was skilfully negotiated, as were knockout round games with Dynamo Kiev and Paris Saint-Germain.
City’s semifinal matches with Real Madrid in 2015-16 represent the club’s only last four appearance. Pellegrini, having moved on from the swashbuckling start made two years earlier, sent out his players to smother Real with a blanket of cautious, low risk football that would be seen as an unpleasant representation of his ultimate demise.
With supporters urging the players to give it a proper go, City instead opted for containment, with a 0-0 home draw followed by a meek 1-0 surrender in Madrid. Even the nature of the goal that prevented City from progressing to their first final — a deflection off reserve defensive midfielder Fernando’s leg — seemed to sum things up. The players were not good enough, the effort not big enough, the plan not considered enough.
City had failed. Pellegrini left that summer, to be replaced by Pep Guardiola. The tactical revolution that has since unfurled seemed to stand City in good stead for significant European progress. In Guardiola’s trophyless first season, the run to the Champions League quarterfinals included some memorable moments, but was ultimately undone by an effervescent Monaco side that played irresistible football, particularly in a goal-strewn first leg at the Etihad.
This season, with City’s league form untouchable and Guardiola’s bedding-in period complete, it was thought reasonable to expect big things from his side on the continent. Until the quarterfinals, their procession through Europe had indeed begun to turn heads with four-goal victories in Rotterdam, Naples and Basel proof of their burgeoning power.
Then came a domestic spat with their arch nemesis Liverpool, probably the least welcome opponent City could have chosen of those remaining in the Champions League. A dousing in the first leg led to moments of real hope of an Etihad comeback, but the dream was buried for another year by Mohamed Salah’s opportunism and a referee unable to decipher the laws of the game.
Now City must watch as Liverpool strive to progress to the Kiev final earmarked by many for themselves. The wait for another chance will not be long. The Champions League bandwagon will chug into life again in September. A real chance while the giants slumber has been forsaken. City with Guardiola’s growing influence will once again be among the favourites, but sooner rather than later, the club will have to be seen to deliver on the one final promise left unfulfilled in City’s glorious decade of progress.
Simon is one of ESPN FC’s Manchester City bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @bifana_bifana.