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The lessons Man City must learn from previous Champions League defeats to reach final

Manchester City appointed Pep Guardiola in 2016 to take them to the next level. That has absolutely been the case in the Premier League, setting new records along the way, notably in 2017/18, and they’ll soon lift a third title in five seasons under the Spaniard’s guidance.

City have also monopolised the Carabao Cup with Guardiola in charge, as well as winning the FA Cup.

But the Champions League is the big one that has so far eluded City, while Guardiola personally hasn’t had his hands on the famous trophy since 2011 when he won his second with Barcelona.

Manchester City v Tottenham Hotspur - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: Second Leg
An offside decision cost Man City in 2019 | Marc Atkins/Getty Images

This represents the club’s best chance yet to finally change that…if they can hold their nerve and see out the second leg of their semi-final against Paris Saint-Germain.

City never reached this late stage of the Champions League in Guardiola’s first four years in charge but are in a strong position to get to the final for the first time ever thanks to a comeback 2-1 win in the away leg in Paris last week. Those two away goals could be invaluable.

But how can they translate that into winning the tie overall and what lessons can be learned from previous Champions League exits that can help get them there this time?

Aleksandar Kolarov
City were too laid back about their aggregate lead over Monaco in 2017 | Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

Defensive frailties were what cost City back in Guardiola’s debut season when they shipped six goals over two legs against Monaco, cancelling out the six goals they scored themselves.

City were arguably too gung-ho in the first leg, lining up with Yaya Toure as a sole defensive midfielder behind an attacking front five. Guardiola also opted for Fernandinho as an emergency left-back over Pablo Zabaleta, who replaced the Brazilian a minute after Monaco scored their third goal at the Etihad. There is less of a leap from right-back to left-back.

Despite holding an aggregate lead, Guardiola wanted his team to attack the second leg to finish the tie off and prevent the Monaco comeback he feared. But he admitted he was unable to convince the players to do so until the second half, by which time it was too late.

Guardiola lost his cool and was sent off during the Liverpool tie in 2018
Guardiola lost his cool and was sent off during the Liverpool tie in 2018 | Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images

City were close to invincible in the Premier League in 2017/18, finishing with a record 100 points in the end, but Liverpool won 5-1 on aggregate when they met in the Champions League quarter-finals.

The damage was mostly done in the first leg when City lost 3-0 at Anfield, yet there were hopes of a comeback in the reverse fixture in Manchester City when Gabriel Jesus made a dent in that aggregate lead just two minutes into the game.

City were then piling on the pressure and had a goal disallowed for offside that could have further cut the deficit. But keeping your cool is so important at the highest level and Guardiola lost his that night, storming onto the pitch when the half-time whistle blew to confront the officials.

That behaviour got the City boss sent off and he was unable to return to the technical area for the crucial second half. Without his leadership and instructions on the sideline, his team lost their way and Liverpool score twice to kill any last hopes.

A weak set piece gave Tottenham the decisive goal in 2019
A weak set piece gave Tottenham the decisive goal in 2019 | Chloe Knott – Danehouse/Getty Images

The 2018/19 quarter-final defeat against Tottenham is most remembered for the would be Raheem Sterling stoppage time winner that was controversially ruled out for offside by VAR.

But the critical blow had really been struck when Fernando Llorente was able to feebly bundle home a corner at the near post. Until that goal went in, City were going through to the semi-finals, regardless of Sterling being denied later on.

Set pieces, although hardly the most glamourous part of football, can be so important and potentially decisive, as proved to be the case two years ago. Switching off, even for a split second, can be extremely costly.

Sloppy defending in open play had also been costly earlier in the game after Sterling had almost immediately cancelled out Spurs’ narrow aggregate lead from the first leg.

Guardiola was arguably guilty of over thinking last season's Lyon tie
Guardiola was arguably guilty of over thinking last season’s Lyon tie | Pool/Getty Images

The nature of the unique mini-tournament that decided the 2019/20 Champions League in light of delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic arguably made it easier to win because the quarter-finals and semi-finals were cut to one leg. Conversely, however, there was no room for error.

Lyon had already caused an upset against Juventus in the previous round and perhaps that influenced Guardiola’s judgement a little too much when he switched things up tactically, opting for three at the back, while also leaving out a number of City’s more creative players.

David Silva, Bernardo Silva, Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden were all left on the bench, with Guardiola eventually changing things to bring Mahrez on when City were trailing.

They did get back on level terms with 20 minutes to go after the tactical shift, but a bad miss from Sterling and an error from goalkeeper Ederson contributed to Lyon re-taking the lead. Had City approached the game more normally, they might have had the impetus from the start, because they had largely lacked any urgency or creativity playing in a new system.

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