It was chaotic, it was dramatic, but once again Manchester City failed to get over the line in the Champions League. Looking to right the wrongs of their 1-0 loss to Chelsea in last year’s final, Pep Guardiola embarked on another full-fledged European assault, and after cruising through the group stages and comfortably dispatching Portuguese outfit Sporting Lisbon in the round of 16, everything looked to be falling into the hands of the Premier League champions. This looked to be the year their curse ended.
Despite dominating domestically, winning three of the last four league titles and on course for another this season, City has always struggled to replicate those performances in Europe. Almost comical eliminations against Monaco and Liverpool — who both exposed the cracks in Guardiola’s defense — were followed by heartbreak against Tottenham Hotspur and Olympique Lyonnais, with the French side stunning everyone who was betting on football with a surprise win in a single leg tie due to the coronavirus pandemic.
After reaching the final last year, City were clear favorites, especially after Chelsea’s inconsistent Premier League results, but once again Guardiola was guilty of overthinking in the big games, starting without either Rodri or Fernandinho as a holding midfielder, even though both were fit and available. The Spaniard was ultimately punished, and ironically it was a turnover high up the pitch that gave Mason Mount space to slip in Kai Havertz for the only goal of the game — a transition that one of the defensive midfielders would probably have cut out.
It led many to wonder if the Champions League ribbons would ever turn sky blue. But when Riyad Mahrez put his side ahead at the Santiago Bernabéu, and two goals up on aggregate after an entertaining 4-3 win at the Etihad eight days before, many thought they were destined to play Liverpool in Paris for another all-English affair. But destiny works in strange ways, and if you gave Jack Grealish the opportunity he had, an almost open goal against a helpless Thibaut Courtois, albeit at an acute angle, he would bury it nine times out of 10, but Ferland Mendy and the 60,000 (or however many had remained in the stadium) were on hand to spoil City’s party with a goal-line clearance.
Just one minute and 60 seconds proved to be the difference between a trip to Paris and complete capitulation. It was almost too much for the fans tucked away in the upper tiers to comprehend. Having come off the bench with little impact out of nowhere it was Brazilian teenager Rodrygo who burst into life and into Madrid folklore. His smart finish at the near post burst Los Blancos into life and a gravity-defying leap beat Aymeric Laporte in the air just seconds later to head home and draw the sides level on aggregate. Fans were clambering to get back in outside and the Bernabéu had suddenly transformed to a bearpit — Karim Benzema the leader of the enclosure.
It was the Frenchman who was on hand to deal the fatal blow to City, with an admittedly soft penalty conceded by Rúben Dias converted for his 44th goal of the season. While it was a campaign to remember for Benzema, who has finally established himself as the main man in Madrid under Carlo Ancelotti, for Guardiola it’s another spectacular European failure.
“It is tough for us, I cannot deny that. We were so close to the Champions League final,” he said after the game.
“We didn’t play well in the first half, we didn’t find our game. The second half was much better and after the goal, we had control. We found our game but unfortunately, we could not finish. The players gave everything. We didn’t suffer much until they scored, but we didn’t play our best.”
With Erling Haaland and Julián Álvarez arriving over the summer, there are surely no excuses for City not to break their curse next season, especially as they come in as heavy favorites, with their financial muscle likely to extend beyond the signings of two generational talents.