Why is Man City a juggernaut in Premier League but fails repeatedly in the Champions League?
For the third straight year, Manchester City have failed to progress to the semi-finals of the Champions League. The best Manchester City ever fared in the competition in recent memory was when they progressed to the semi-finals in 2016, in what would prove to be Manuel Pellegrini’s farewell season. Now City will have to wait for another year to try and better that record. City’s ouster at the hands of Tottenham Hotspurs was reminiscent of their defeat in 2016, when AS Monaco progressed through to the quarter-finals on away goals after having drawn with City on aggregate. Video assistant referee (VAR) drama, denied goals and a missed penalty in the first leg, all combined to deny City an unprecedented quadruple title haul.
City fans now have to be satisfied with the possibility of a treble, which is still a long shot. However, since its renaissance (after the club was taken over by Sheikh Mansour in 2008), there has been a stark chasm between the City that plays in the English Premier League (EPL) and the City that plays in the Champions League.
In the last decade, City have won three Premier League titles, one FA Cup title, four League cups and two FA Community Shields. But one trophy that has constantly eluded the sky blues is the Champions League. Every season they have fallen short of winning the Champions League – well short.
So why is City a juggernaut in England but fails repeatedly in the Champions League? Why is it that they can trounce oppositions, shatter records and score incessantly in the EPL but fail to replicate the same success against their European opponents?
The answer to this conundrum is hard to decipher, but let's give it a go.
A reason for City’s repeated Champions League failure can be attributed to the dip in quality of the English sides in the Champions League in the last few years. English teams have underwhelmed in the competition in recent times and have consistently been outperformed by their Spanish, Italian and French rivals. Before Liverpool’s successful run up to the final hurdle last year, the last time an English team reached the final was in 2012, when Chelsea lifted the coveted cup. However, since then, the trophy has just exchanged hands between German and Spanish sides. A contributing factor to this is the intensity of the Premier League, where the schedule is gruelling and there are no easy games. On the other hand, La Liga has been dominated by Barcelona and Real Madrid, while the Bundesliga, Ligue 1 and Serie A have been monopolised by Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and Juventus respectively.
The Premier League is still very much open in terms of which teams can lift the trophy, and this was made apparent in the 2015-16 season when an underdog team like Leicester City ended up at the top of the table. The arduous scheduling and lack of winter breaks means that the players from the English sides enter the Champions League in February more fatigued than their Spanish, German and French counterparts.
Another reason that English sides tend to fail against European teams is due to their tactical disadvantage. Teams in the Premier League often follow a set pattern of attacking football that suits them against their English rivals, but against European clubs, such tactics don’t yield results. Faced with the power of the European heavyweights, English teams find it hard to maintain the same intensity over the two legs.
For City, there appears to be a pattern. City defeated Tottenham Hotspurs 4-3 last Wednesday, but were ultimately eliminated on away goals. Last season they lost 3-0 at Anfield against Liverpool in the first leg of the quarter-final. In 2017, City beat Monaco 5-3 in the last-16 home match before losing 3-1 in the return fixture, thus losing on away goals. This points towards a rather troubling pattern. It is clear that City’s defense has failed to stop goals in the big matches, and this has ended up costing them heavily.
What really complicates the argument is the fact that City’s last two ousters from the competition have come at the hands of Premier League sides, the same sides they easily decimated in the EPL. So what changed?
Well, even Pep Guardiola doesn’t have the answer. For his stellar résumé, failure in the Champions League is a blemish which he is desperate to remove. But losing matches at critical moments, due to mistakes or sheer poor luck, keeps denying Guardiola the opportunity to bring Europe’s most coveted title to the blue half of Manchester. He was brought to the Etihad for one main reason – to use his Barcelona magic to make City the best team in Europe. Three years into the job, the wait continues.
The nature of the competition is such that no team is guaranteed a place in the knockouts. PSG and Juventus signed big names in the hope of winning the title but fell short despite having spent a gargantuan sum on these transfers. City, with a formidable and rather balanced side, have failed to shine in the Champions League. For City, no number of trophies can be a good enough substitute for that one elusive piece of silverware which they keep failing to grasp.
City’s repeated inability to prove themselves in the Champions League is a rather puzzling phenomenon. Perhaps nothing captures this mystery more aptly than the fact that two days after Tottenham ended Manchester City’s Champions League journey, City secured a victory against them in the EPL.
All photos: AFP