So, that’s it then.
The long and winding road to Milan had taken City through some pretty hostile territory along the way. They conquered Seville, they stood tall in Ukraine and they were more than a match for the Parisian resistance.
But in Madrid, so close to the end, they encountered a formidable road block and rather than hurtling headlong into it and going down in a hail of bullets, they simply turned around and meekly retreated home.
Nobody but the delusional could have been expecting City to overcome Real Madrid in Wednesday night’s semi-final second leg. Not the reported 10,000 fans who made the trip over to the Spanish capital, nor the ones watching at home, nor anyone with any sense. It had been nice to get as far as the semi-final and it would have been even nicer to reach the final, but we knew it wasn’t very likely.
Improbable but not impossible. After all, Madrid’s failure to score an away goal in Manchester last week meant a score draw at the Bernabéu would have seen City through. We didn’t need to beat them, we just had to match them goal for goal. It was a big ask, sure, but it was doable.
It felt a lot like Vincent Kompany was going to be vital to City’s chances of accomplishing mission improbable. The Blues have been a much more resilient proposition with their skipper on the pitch this season and if he could play well in this one, his teammates would surely follow suit and maybe, just maybe, they’d have a chance.
But Kompany’s ability to get through a whole match without being let down by that calf of his has also become an improbability of late and it didn’t come as the greatest shock the world has ever seen when his attempt to bring the ball out of defence ended with him lying in a heap on the floor after 10 minutes.
Off he went and off, it seemed in that moment, went any hope City had of winning the tie.
After 20 minutes, Gareth Bale found space in City’s box, his shot nicked off Fernando’s toe and in off the post went what felt like being the first of many Real Madrid goals. Conceding one goal didn’t change much from City’s perspective. They still needed to score but the chances of them restricting Los Blancos to just a single goal in the 70 minutes that remained seemed remote.
In fairness though, Nicolás Otamendi and Kompany’s replacement Eliaquim Mangala did everything they could to keep City’s hopes alive. Madrid created many chances to add to Bale’s goal and the Welshman came within an inch of doubling his tally when his header hit the crossbar in the second half, but the score remained at 1-0 and City’s defenders and their goalkeeper played their parts. It was not a defeat for which the defence should shoulder much of the blame.
In the end, one equalising goal would have been enough to see City through but they barely even came close to getting it and that’s what was so disappointing. The match kicked off amidst a fevered, cacophony of noise from the 80,000 Madridistas and Mancunians inside the stadium and from first whistle to last, City’s ghost green clad players looked as nervous as we all felt.
Games at this level and of this magnitude are won as much with the mind as they are with the feet and City fell well short in both departments. This expensively assembled, ridiculously well paid group of footballers seemed utterly bereft of confidence and played within themselves. Their soon-to-be-departing manager must of course take a great deal of blame for failing to inspire and motivate his players to perform as we know they can, but those players must also ask themselves whether they have the mentality required to win the biggest prizes.
Manuel Pellegrini set his team up to counter-attack as they’ve done to great effect elsewhere in Europe this season, but in Madrid they did nothing of the sort. They were nervous and ponderous in possession and took the wrong risks at the wrong times. Kevin De Bruyne was poor, Yaya Touré was out of his depth and Sergio Agüero was virtually anonymous.
We had every reason to be confident pre-match that City could score at least once but they never got closer than when Fernandinho’s first half pot-shot clipped the outside of the post on its way out. Watching them struggle was like dying slowly and painfully. A second Madrid goal would have put us out of our misery but it never came. Neither though, did any real hope of a City revival.
And that’s about all there is to say about what must be one of the most underwhelming, dispirited and disappointing performances a semi-finalist of Europe’s premier competition has ever put in. “Juntos no hay imposibles” (“together nothing is impossible”) read the banner held aloft by the Real Madrid supporters prior to kick off. City’s players either didn’t get or didn’t understand the memo.
When all’s said and done, most of us would have taken a Champions League semi-final at the start of the season, it was fun while it lasted and we went out to a better team. We can take that on the chin.
If nothing else, City’s travails in Europe this season have given us an accurate gauge of exactly where their 8-year-old project is at. We’re a match for the likes of Paris Saint-Germain – A.K.A Europe’s B-listers – and we’re better than the likes of Dynamo Kyiv, but there’s no question that we’re still a long way behind the Real Madrids of this world and it could be a while yet before we can even think about catching them up.
Manuel Pellegrini has, to put it kindly, taken this club as far as he can and we have reason to be hopeful that a better manager and some shrewd summer signings will help bridge the oceanic gap between us and Europe’s elite fairly quickly. But while Pellegrini’s still here, we have reason to be fearful about our chances of qualifying for next season’s Champions League and Arsenal’s visit to the Etihad on Sunday is now a game of monumental importance.
A Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid seemed like an impossible dream a few years ago and despite the great expense it took to get us there, there’s never any shame in losing. However, the phrase “it’s not the defeat that hurts but the manner of it” pretty much sums up the mood in the aftermath and those words have been used far, far too frequently during the last two thirds of Manuel Pellegrini’s tenure at the club.
That is what’s such a shame.
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Written by Dan Burke