Manchester City’s tale of woe in the Champions League over the last few years has been quite incredible. For all their blistering success in the Premier League and domestic cup competitions, somehow City and manager Pep Guardiola have failed to crack the code as far as the Champions League is concerned, suffering three successive quarter-final exits in the last three seasons.
Given that Manchester City are always among the top favourites in the betting odds to win the Champions League, it’s bizarre that they haven’t been able to get closer to landing that elusive maiden title. Last season, it was Lyon who upset the odds by getting the better of City in the quarter-final in Lisbon, and before that, English rivals Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool both put paid to Guardiola’s hopes of Champions League glory.
Indeed, the Catalonian coach has not won Europe’s premier club competition since his second success with Barcelona in 2011 – ten years ago. Despite making Bayern Munich a dominant force in the Bundesliga, he was unable to deliver a Champions League title in his three years in Germany, and since arriving at Manchester City ahead of the 2016-17 season, Guardiola has not been able to find a winning formula in the Champions League there either.
It’s clear that the pressure to win the tournament weighs heavily on Guardiola and his team. The goal for Manchester City’s hierarchy has always been sustained European success, but it seems as though City feel the weight of their own excellence every time the latter stages of the competition roll round. When they faced Liverpool in the spring of 2018, the Champions League was seen as City’s to lose, such was the dominance they were exhibiting in the Premier League. But nerves seemed to get the better of them, and Liverpool pummelled them 4-1 on aggregate.
12 months later it was Tottenham who were dishing out the heartache for City. A rip-roaring second-leg saw City have a late winner agonisingly ruled out, and Spurs progressed via away goals en route to the Champions League final. Last year, there was no excuse for City’s demise against Lyon. Although the French side performed brilliantly on the night, it was a tie Guardiola’s men simply should have won, and the aim this season has to be to put right those failures.
But how can they avoid falling into the same old pitfalls? Perhaps City have been guilty of reining things in too much in high-profile Champions League matches, rather than asserting their swashbuckling attacking style. Guardiola needs to find a way to get his team performing in the Champions League as they do in the Premier League. The recent 4-1 victory over Liverpool at Anfield showcased how ruthless they can be when on top form, and that ruthlessness is what wins Champions League titles – just ask Bayern Munich, who put eight past Barcelona on their way to victory last season.
There is also a sense that City’s top players have underperformed on an individual level when push comes to shove in the Champions League. Nerves have seemingly got the better of City’s stars in the Champions League, and with each passing season where they fail to live up to expectations in Europe, the pressure only gets higher.
It’s an age-old cliché, but the task facing Guardiola is to find a way to get City playing like it means nothing when it means everything – to treat a high-profile, high-stakes Champions League match as if it was just another run-of-the-mill league game against Burnley or Newcastle United. It seems trite to say, given Guardiola’s detailed, meticulous methods that have yielded so much domestic success, that when it comes to the Champions League, City are guilty of over-thinking things.
This season, the first step is to get the better of Borussia Mönchengladbach in the last 16, and then simply focus on actually winning a quarter-final tie. If City can do so, then the confidence, momentum, and sheer relief gained could be enough to propel them towards that shimmering prize which has so far evaded them.