Last night’s Champion’s League encounter was a thoroughlly enjoyable one for spectators, but the outcome won’t have pleased Manchester City fans.
Pep Guardiola’s side went into the match 0-1 down on aggregate; not an ideal situation, but not one which looked impossible to overcome. Harry Kane’s ankle injury sustained in the first leg ruled him out of this crucial tie at the Etihad, seemingly giving City an even better chance of progressing. Dele Alli’s broken hand made him a doubt but was never going to be enough for him to miss such a great occasion.
The game was all-action right from start to finish. Congratulations to anyone who predicted that the scoreline would be 3-2 to the home side just 21 minutes into the match. Neither of these sides are typically leaky in defence but they are both prolific in attack, and that was showing. Heung-Min Son continued to display how he appears to prefer playing in a Spurs side without Kane, the former Leverkusen star scoring twice in the opening 10 minutes. Despite his best efforts, Aguero put City in pole position to progress with his goal just before the hour mark. The game was back and forth though, and always seemed likely to produce more goals. It was LLorente who made the score 4-3 on the night, a result which would see Tottenham through to the semi-finals. The ball appeared to brush his arm before bouncing off his hip and into the back of the net. VAR was used but the referee allowed the goal to stand. Yet, this was far from the last of the drama. The in-form Raheem Sterling thought he had won the game late on before his goal was ruled out for an earlier offside. City will feel unlucky that a few VAR decisions didn’t go their way, but it is they who slump to yet another disappointing Champions League exit.
This was the second consecutive season that City suffered a Champions League quarter-final defeat against English opposition, Liverpool getting the better of them in last year’s competition. They are a side who’s football is admired by all, greatly dominating domestic football, and still in a great position to complete the treble this season. It is on the European stage that they repeatedly fail to live up to expectation.
In truth, it’s difficult to see why this is the case. Their side is almost as strong as can be and they have a serial winner as a manager. Guardiola has done everything he can strengthen his squad season upon season, but it has never been enough to prevent the Champions League from eluding them.
You could raise the argument that you face different types of opponents in European football. Barcelona displayed a masterclass in keeping possession against Manchester United. That isn’t something we always see in the Premier League, not to the same extent at least. Thus, Man City might not be able to cope with facing these different styles. Whilst that may have been the case in earlier Champions League campaigns, the last two years seem to counter this argument. Liverpool and Spurs are familiar opponents but they’ve still been outpperformed across two legs.
This might suggest that mentality has a bigger role to play than we might think. City are not afraid of the big stage. They have huge encounters on a regular basis in the Premier League, whether that be an eagerly anticipated Manchester Derby or a title influencing fixture against their nearest contenders. But the Champions League is a different stage entirely. The world is watching when it comes to big European nights and, perhaps subconsciously, this has an affect on their performance.
Of course, we could say that about any side. The Champions League is the trophy everyone wants to win so pressure is bound to be key. But it’s certainly more of a factor for some teams than others. The likes of City, Juventus and PSG have all been outstanding in their respective leagues for a number of years now. Winning the title is an expectation and, because of this, there is more emphasis on winning Europe’s most prestigious competition.
Can it be a coincidence that we are constantly seeing these sides come so close, but ultimately let themsleves down? These are some of Europe’s best sides. It can’t purely be a case of them having less quality than their opponents. City would have been favourites against Spurs when the draw was made, as would Juventus against Ajax and PSG against Manchester United.
Pressure and player mentality are certainly key, in more ways than one. Many would agree that it’s easier to go into a game as the underdogs. No one expects much of you. It’s easier to play with freedom, without the pressure and expectation of winning. But mentality is important in other ways too. We saw the difference a change in attitude and feeling around a club could make when Solskjaer replaced Mourinho at Manchester United. The impressive streak they went on never seemed possible with Mourinho at the helm. This and City’s Champions League hoodoo display just how important mentality really is in football.