Manchester City have created plenty of history under Pep Guardiola, but they may now be heading for the ignominy of adding their name to the list of sport’s biggest chokers. To make matters worse, City’s failings could fast-track Liverpool‘s path to an unprecedented Quadruple.
This week has reminded us that nothing is certain in football until the final whistle is blown. Real Madrid‘s incredible comeback against City in the Champions League semifinal second leg, when they scored twice in stoppage time to take the game to extra time and then won 3-1 (6-5 on aggregate) came just 24 hours after Liverpool had stared their own humiliation in the face by surrendering a 2-0 first-leg lead against Villarreal at half-time before going on to win 3-2 (5-2 on aggregate) in Paris later this month.
At 89 minutes in the Santiago Bernabeu, City were heading to the final and still on course for a Premier League/Champions League double. But now, they face Newcastle at the Etihad on Sunday knowing they could end the season with nothing if they fail to win all four remaining league games to keep Liverpool at bay.
City are only one point ahead currently, but they had moved 12 points clear of Liverpool at the top of the Premier League following a 2-0 home win against Brentford on Feb. 9. Jurgen Klopp’s team had two games in hand, but nonetheless, City held a significant lead, so they’ve not only blown it in the Bernabeu. Losing such a lead in the Premier League would be the worst collapse since Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United gifted Man City the title in 2012, despite holding an eight-point lead with six games to play.
There is, of course, the possibility that Liverpool could also fall short this season and end up lifting just the Carabao Cup, which they won by beating Chelsea 11-10 on penalties after a 0-0 draw in February, despite all the talk of an unprecedented four-trophy campaign. Chelsea could avenge that Wembley defeat by winning the FA Cup final vs. Liverpool on May 14. City could steady themselves to walk away with the league title, while nobody would risk dismissing Madrid’s prospects of winning a 14th Champions League at Stade de France on May 28.
But football is all about momentum, and Liverpool have it in abundance. City have lost theirs, and Liverpool will take additional strength from the implosion being endured by Guardiola and his players. While City crumbled against Madrid, Liverpool stiffened their resolve to snuff out Villarreal’s comeback in Estadio de la Ceramica. Liverpool’s big-game players rose to the occasion when they had to against Unai Emery’s side, but just when City needed a match-winning performance from Kevin De Bruyne, the midfielder was so anonymous that he was substituted in the closing stages.
Alejandro Moreno details how Luis Diaz’s impact led Liverpool to a second-half comeback over Villarreal.
Recent results and performances suggest City are clinging on with their fingertips at the same time as Liverpool seem to be getting stronger and more determined. One theory is that Klopp’s team have a stronger mentality because they have been forged in adversity. Before it all clicked at Anfield, Klopp’s side lost a Europa League final against Sevilla, a Carabao Cup final against City, a Champions League final against Madrid in Kyiv and, unforgettably, they missed out on the league title to City in 2019 despite losing just one game and amassing 97 points.
Liverpool had to learn how to bounce back from setbacks, and their collective strength and belief grew from those near-misses. But while City have had plenty of bad nights in the Champions League, they have not been through the same hard knocks as Liverpool. Domestically, it has all seemed too easy for City at times, with eight major trophies in England since Guardiola took charge in 2016. They have also achieved a domestic Treble in that time.
Disappointments have been few and far between, largely restricted to the Champions League, but they have not really impacted City’s domestic ambitions. However, this week’s elimination is on a different scale to anything they have experienced before.
Suddenly, a routine run of Premier League fixtures to clinch the title now looks like the final stages of climbing a mountain. Newcastle (one of the league’s in-form teams) at home, with heavy minds and legs after Madrid, will be a test of nerve as well as physical endurance, while next Wednesday’s trip to eighth-place Wolves is another game that will pose big questions of Guardiola and his players.
In both games, City play a day after Liverpool, so could find themselves in second place needing to win to reclaim top spot, which only adds more pressure.
Then comes a game at Europe-chasing West Ham on May 15, followed by the season finale at home to Steven Gerrard’s Aston Villa. Just imagine the tension at the Etihad that day if Gerrard has the chance to help his old club Liverpool by denying City a win they may need to clinch the title.
City are still favourites to win the Premier League because they’re a point clear and only four games left in which Liverpool could catch them. But this City team knows it’s blown one competition and is halfway to blowing another, so the fear of failure could creep into the club’s psyche. It’s time for Guardiola and his players to get off the canvas and find some spirit to fight back.