By Simon Evans
MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) – Steel and pragmatism are words rarely associated with Pep Guardiola’s thrilling Manchester City side, but they are characteristics that would have served them well in their Champions exit at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur on Wednesday.
Such is the intensity of the Premier League title race that City will have little time to contemplate and analyse their European demise in such dramatic fashion against Mauricio Pochettino’s team.
They are back in action on Saturday against Spurs with no room for error as Liverpool continue their march at the top of the table. Then on Wednesday they have the small matter of the Manchester derby at Old Trafford.
While City manager Guardiola would never admit to having priorities in terms of which titles matter the most, the way he has talked about the Champions League suggests that is the one that would have brought him the greatest satisfaction.
Yet just as last year, City fell short, beaten in the last eight by English opponents — last year it was 5-1 on aggregate to Liverpool, this time on away goals after a 4-3 win on Wednesday was not enough to overturn the 1-0 loss in London in the first leg.
It was such a remarkable, manic game of football, with four goals in the opening 11 minutes and then a dramatic last-gasp ‘winner’ overturned by VAR, that it could be easy to write off the defeat as simply fate or bad luck.
Yet there is a pattern to City’s exits from Europe in the past three seasons and it is one which should concern Guardiola and his players.
In all those games City paid the price for spells where they totally lost control of the game, conceding multiple goals in short blitzes.
Last season’s exit to Liverpool came after City conceded three goals in a 19-minute spell in the first half as they fell to a 3-0 loss in the first leg at Anfield that they were unable to turn around at home.
The previous year, in the round of 16, City beat Monaco 5-3 at home — conceding three goals inside a 29-minute period. They then went out on away goals after failing to defend their lead in the principality — losing 3-1 with the crucial decider coming in the 77th minute.
On Wednesday they took the lead in the fourth minute before allowing Spurs to score twice in the seventh and 10th minutes.
City failed to kill off the game, seemingly unable to use their unmatched prowess at possession football when it was needed to stifle the momentum of the match.
When Sergio Aguero struck in the 59th minute, City had the two-goal advantage they needed to advance to the last four.
As Guardiola sent on holding midfielder Fernandinho for playmaker David Silva, it appeared a smart, pragmatic move to shore up the game.
Yet nothing changed in City’s approach — they continued to push forward in search of more goals, which carried the risk of Spurs exploiting space on the break.
It should not be forgotten that City played some wonderful football. Kevin De Bruyne was magnificent in midfield, Bernardo Silva was busy and creative and two-goal Raheem Sterling a constant goal threat.
De Bruyne summed up Guardiola’s approach in an article this week for The Players’ Tribune.
“Most of the time, football is about negativity and fear. But with Pep, it’s about extreme positivity,” he said.
But a little negativity can sometimes be needed.
The great teams have the ability to close down games, to shut up shop, keep calm and disciplined and sacrifice the flowing attacks for more prudent movement.
City have shown that quality many times in the Premier League but in Europe, for some reason, they can struggle with game management.
Is this simply the price City pay for their commitment to exhilarating attacking football?
If they are to taste European success, Guardiola must teach his team to fuse that wonderful entertainment with the steel needed to come through two-legged knockout games.
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Toby Davis)