The morning after the night before, the images retained a haunting quality for Manchester City supporters. Never mind the sight of many of their players slumped over or stretched out along the turf at the Estádio do Dragão following the death of the Champions League dream, it was Pep Guardiola, inevitably, who best caught the frustration and despair.
The City manager had wanted to make one thing clear after the 1-0 loss to Chelsea in the final in Porto. “I’d like to say it was an exceptional, exceptional season for us,” Guardiola said, and nobody disagreed. A third Premier League title in four attempts, won by a 12-point margin, is Exhibit A for the defence, and then there has been the quality of the football: fast, incisive, technically brilliant.
When Guardiola falls short in the Champions League, as he has now done five times at City, there are critics who argue that he has failed in his job. The theory runs that the Champions League is the trophy that the club and its owner, Sheikh Mansour, most want and so if Guardiola cannot deliver it, he will be forever damned.
It is nonsense and ignores the rest of Guardiola’s work; the domestic silverware, the week-in, week-out entertainment for City fans, his wider influence on the English game. And yet, at the same time, there is no doubt that the gap on his CV stands to affect his City legacy. While it remains there will be an asterisk. Just as now, there is one against his team’s season.
Guardiola went through all his little tics during a post-match press conference he did not want to give, touching the stubble above his lip, scratching at his furrowed brow, fidgeting, shrugging. He barely knows what it is to lose a major final – this was only his second such reverse, the other being the Copa Del Rey defeat to Real Madrid with Barcelona in 2011. This season he had previously lost only one must-win game, to Chelsea, uncoincidentally, in the FA Cup semi-final.
The novelty factor deepened the pain, accentuated the soul-searching. It is a scar that at best will take some time to heal given the distance to next season’s final. At worst it may never do so and if that sounds like an exaggeration, then consider that this was Guardiola’s first final since 2011, also with Barcelona.
“It’s one of those that you don’t want to keep dwelling on,” Raheem Sterling, the City winger said with a blank stare. “Move on.” Good luck with that.
Rather abruptly, Guardiola and his players have unwanted baggage that will remain with them throughout the summer and probably for most of next season. How they carry it will be the ultimate psychological test, particularly as the defeat will be mentioned regularly, deepening an unwanted narrative.
Manchester City’s players get ready to collect their unwanted silver medals. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty Images
The defeat in last season’s quarter-final to Lyon was bad, mainly because of its self-inflicted nature. This was worse. Against Lyon, Guardiola had started with a surprise 3-4-2-1 system, which featured Fernandinho on the right of the defensive three, and it did not work. However, after a tactical rejig City got back into it and, despite their errors, could also lament an open-goal miss from Sterling on 86 minutes for 2-2. How to legislate for that?
Against Chelsea, while the margins were similarly fine, City did not give the impression they had a goal in them. They created virtually nothing in the second half. Chelsea were the better team in the first half and, once in front, backed themselves to close out the result.
A year on from Lyon, City were the defending Premier League champions rather than the runners-up. They had Rúben Dias, the player of the season, plus plenty of others who have improved greatly, chiefly John Stones, Ilkay Gündogan and Phil Foden. And yet they hit a wall.
Guardiola certainly chose quite the moment to start without a specialist defensive midfielder, with both Fernandinho and Rodri left on the bench. One or both had started in every one of the club’s previous 60 matches this season bar the Champions League group stage win over Olympiakos in November.
Instead, Guardiola used Gündogan – the team’s top scorer this season – as his deepest-lying midfielder. The lack of protection for the defence was a feature of the first half, most damagingly when Chelsea broke quickly for the Havertz goal. Sterling was asked whether the absence of Fernandinho and Rodri had been a problem. “I thought we started off really well,” he replied. “We were in the game and it [the goal] was a counterattack … we knew exactly what they were going to do and that’s exactly what happened.”
Guardiola had infamously lost a Champions League semi-final second-leg with Bayern to Madrid in 2014 by a 4-0 scoreline, having set up with attacking personnel. His team were shredded on the counter and he vowed to never again be so open. And yet the flaw was there against Chelsea in a lineup loaded with offensive-minded midfielders and wingers. They struggled to execute a complicated gameplan.
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What was interesting to hear from Guardiola were repeated references to it having been City’s and most of his players’ first Champions League final. Only Gündogan had played in Europe’s showpiece final before.
The subtext was that the experience will stand them in good stead for the future. All clubs must suffer heartbreak before they triumph in this most capricious of competitions. And yet their conquerors in Chelsea blue were equally inexperienced, with only Thiago Silva having appeared in a previous final. City’s regrets run deep. The days ahead will be hard.
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