Eight minutes in August. That was all it took to ruin a dream last season. Just eight minutes. In that time in Lisbon’s Estadio Jose Alvalade, Manchester City’s chances of a first Champions League triumph slipped away.
Drawing 1-1 with Lyon with 11 minutes of their quarter-final remaining, City conceded two quick goals. They were bad ones too. In between, Raheem Sterling missed a sitter.
From right in it to categorically and conclusively dumped out of it. All in the blink of an eye. Lyon were the seventh best team in France last season. It was a game City should not have lost and coach Pep Guardiola admitted on Monday that he took a while to get over it.
Pep Guardiola knows Man City and the Champions League have not been a good fit recently
It took eight minutes to ruin a dream for Manchester City in last season’s Champions League
European woe: Manchester City’s Champions League slip-ups
2017: Last 16, Monaco 6 Man City 6 on aggregate (Monaco win on away goals).
City win a stunning home leg 5-3 but are undone in France by Bernardo Silva and Benjamin Mendy.
2018: Quarter-final, Man City 1 Liverpool 5 on aggregate.
Liverpool blitz City 3-0 at Anfield. The second-leg fightback stalls after Leroy Sane’s strike to make it 3-2 is wrongly judged offside.
2019: Quarter-final, Man City 4 Tottenham 4 on aggregate.
Sergio Aguero misses a penalty in the first leg. In the second leg, Raheem Sterling’s stoppage-time winner is disallowed for offside.
2020: Quarter-final, Man City 1 Lyon 3.
Pep Guardiola is heavily criticised for his conservative tactics. Sterling — the best player on the pitch — misses a late open goal.
‘It stayed in my head for weeks,’ said Guardiola.
‘It was the summer time, the last game of the season. It was painful, I can’t deny. We wanted to go through. We didn’t deserve to go through and it was hard.
‘A defeat like that hurts. Normally you lose and then you have the Premier League or the FA Cup. But this time it was completely different.
‘The day after we said goodbye to everyone and went on our holidays. I was just disappointed. Now we are here again, to try it again.’
City and the Champions League have been an uncomfortable fit for years. Just one semi-final — back in the days of Manuel Pellegrini in 2016 — to show for years of hope and toil.
Last year — with the latter stages of the competition crammed in to a winner-takes-all series of one-off games in Portugal — felt like it was an opportunity.
But so too does this year’s edition. Barcelona and Juventus are already out. Real Madrid and Liverpool are about to play each other.
So City’s quarter-final meeting with Borussia Dortmund, that begins at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday night, has the look of a half-open door to be leaned on once again.
There has been much talk about Dortmund this season but it has tended to focus on individuals. The precocious Erling Haaland may well be a City player next season.
Jude Bellingham and Jadon Sancho — just 17 and 21 — are both English. Sancho is a product of the City academy.
But what has tended to be overlooked is that Dortmund’s football has recently failed to live up to the sum of the team’s parts.
The German side have won just one of their last five games and Saturday’s home defeat by Eintracht Frankfurt left them fifth in the Bundesliga, 21 points behind leaders Bayern Munich.
City were knocked out of the Champions League quarter-finals by Lyon in August last year
Guardiola made the surprising call of dropping John Stones (left) and Phil Foden (second left)
City, therefore, are favourites to progress. Their own form is rich and they were impressive in Saturday’s 2-0 Premier League win at Leicester. Their best players are at or approaching where they need to be. So the major obstacles to progress may well lie within.
City tend to be over-zealous in this competition while their manager can be tempted to overthink things. His selection decisions for the defeat by Lyon last summer included leaving out Phil Foden and John Stones. If it felt clever at the start, it looked anything but by the end.
What City need this time is merely an extension of what they do every week in the Premier League. This has been a different City this year in some ways. They have a midfielder, Ilkay Gundogan, as their top scorer for example, but the fundamentals remain the same: keep the ball and use the ball.
Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Haaland (pictured) could be a City player by next season
It was something Guardiola alluded to when asked about the danger posed by Haaland. ‘He’s fantastic and everyone knows it,’ said Guardiola. ‘A blind guy can realise he’s fantastic. You don’t have to be a manager to know it.
‘But the striker who scores goals has more chances to score when in our box. Far away from our box they have less chances. It’s not mathematics. The best way is to avoid them being there as much as possible.’
Guardiola dealt with the torrent of Haaland questions with commendable patience on Monday. The Norwegian, 20, remains City’s prime summer target but there is not much Guardiola can reasonably be expected to say about that.
Winger Jadon Sancho (left) once played for City and will look to haunt his former employers
What is more pertinent to him — something he really does feel deeply — is a personal fallow period in the Champions League that now extends a decade back to his last triumph with Barcelona in 2011.
Nobody expected his wait for the next one to be so long. Nobody really thought City would require so much patience before reaching a final either. The missions are now linked.
‘Life is such that you stand up again,’ said Guardiola in the moments after last season’s disaster in Lisbon. ‘So we will try again next year.’ And now next year is here. City will try again.