Lofty status dented

Manchester City's reputation took a severe beating after heavy defeats to Liverpool and United

WILTING UNDER PRESSURE: Manchester City's inability to progress in the Champions League shows they are not a perfect side. (REUTERS)

It was not just Jurgen Klopp’s reaction that was telling, but the fact that he was told at all.

As Klopp, Liverpool’s manager, climbed the stairs to the locker rooms at the Etihad Stadium, fresh from a victory against Manchester City that gave his team its first berth in the Champions League semifinals in a decade, a colleague pulled him aside and excitedly imparted the news. Barcelona was out, eliminated by Roma. Klopp, at first, presumed it was a joke.

There had been a sense, in Manchester and in England, that this was the sort of night for a comeback, for the impossible to become possible. The presumption was that it would be here, where the runaway leader of the Premier League had to overcome a 3-0 deficit against Liverpool, a thrilling but flawed side.

After Pep Guardiola, the City coach, had named a lineup of naked attacking intent — three defenders and a half-dozen play makers, a statement that if City was going out of the competition it was going out blazing — and watched his team score in the second minute, the stage seemed set.

Manchester City’s hierarchy cherishes this competition; for those in its corridors of power in Abu Dhabi, the Champions League is where true greatness is established. Its fans, though, are a little cooler towards it: Their focus remains, it feels, on the relative novelty of local and domestic superiority. As City poured forward on Tuesday and Liverpool teetered, it looked as if this might be the occasion to change their minds, and to capture their hearts.

It was not to be. Guardiola, later, was right to point out a handful of refereeing decisions that went against his team — most notably a second goal, just before half-time, that was incorrectly ruled out by an offside call — but, ultimately, that did not explain quite why City wilted so notably in the second half. One Liverpool goal, from Mohamed Salah, drew City’s sting; another, from Roberto Firmino, broke its hearts, and Liverpool walked away with a 2-1 victory for a 5-1 aggregate win.

In Rome, though, something remarkable was happening. Roma had started the evening down 4-1 after a calamitous first leg in Barcelona in which it had scored three own goals.

There was precious little hope, even in Italy, for a comeback. “Little Italy and Great Spain,” ran the headline in Gazzetta dello Sport, the Italian sports daily. Nobody gave the team sitting fourth in Serie A much of a chance against Lionel Messi and the rest.

And yet, as Klopp said, the Champions League “is quite fair.” Everybody has a chance, no matter how slim, no matter what team they are playing. An 82nd minute goal from Kostas Manolas, the Greek defender, sealed a 3-0 win for the host and eliminated Barcelona on the away-goals rule.

Fans inside the Stadio Olimpico cried tears of joy. Cengiz Ünder, the Turkish winger signed in the summer to replace Salah, as it happens, cradled his head in his hands, as if in shock. Roma had not reached the semifinal of this tournament since 1984. That year, it lost to Liverpool in the final.

Klopp, after all, was not merely being polite when he insisted, once again, that Liverpool had beaten perhaps the best team in Europe to progress. What Guardiola has achieved with City in his second season should not be masked by a disappointing week: three defeats, two to Liverpool and one, on Saturday, to Manchester United, depriving City of the chance to claim a Premier League title against its fiercest rival.

Like Barcelona, City will still end the season as a domestic champion, without question, but it will do so with less of a triumphant air than perhaps it deserves.

It is an anticlimax, to some extent, of its own making. Over the last 10 months, as Guardiola said, City has been “pretty good.” They set a Premier League record for most consecutive wins. They established a lead at the top of the table that has reached as high as 18 points. They have scored three or more goals in 23 separate games. It has been a glorious season for them.

Whether the Premier League is the “most prestigious” competition in the world — as Guardiola labelled it — is debatable; that City has dominated a league that contains a handful of outstanding teams, including one good enough to make the Champions League semifinal, is not.

That they did not win the title in perfect style, that they faltered a little at the end, that Liverpool eventually had the will and the wit to win out over two legs does not mean all of that is wiped off the slate; it does not make the paeans of praise it has won any less valid.

That City could not quite live up to the exalted status bestowed upon it — Guardiola, after all, was being asked before Christmas whether his team could win all four competitions it entered — is not failure: It is simply proof that they are not, yet, perfect.

The same could be said for Barcelona, of course, though the reaction in Catalonia is likely to be less sanguine than it will be in Manchester. There will be calls for the overhaul of the squad, for a new coach, for revolution. Guardiola will not have to deal with any of that: he will simply come back and try to be better next year.

“Last year we made the last 16, this year the quarterfinals,” he said afterwards. “Hopefully next year we can make the semis.” He said it with a smile, though. He is aiming higher.

He must, though, endure the disappointment of another abortive European campaign, another year in which this competition has brought nothing but pain to Manchester City. It will be of little solace — and none at all to Barcelona — but that is, in a way, a mark of how far this club has come.

To Liverpool and Roma, reaching the Champions League semifinals is an unexpected bonus, an impossible dream. To Manchester City, as to Barcelona, not doing so is in some way falling short. Barcelona going out shocked Klopp, as it shocked Europe. But seeing City fall, too, would have had almost the same effect.

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