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Is 2023 the year for Manchester City to overcome their Champions League curse?

Tonight, Manchester City host Champions League 14-time winners Real Madrid at the Etihad Stadium, in the most defining game in their season to date.


There is a lot riding on this evening, as chances don’t come bigger than this. Pep Guardiola’s machine is working smoother than ever, with his new styles of football consistently tearing up the Premier League.


The Spaniard has talismanic striker Erling Haaland at his disposal this time around, who is currently on 52 goals for the season and being supplied chances by architect Kevin De Bruyne.


The Citizens matched Real Madrid stride for stride in the first leg. They have 90 minutes, on home turf, to fight for a ticket to the final against Inter Milan: chances don’t come much better than this.


The Champions League trophy is the final piece missing from their illustrious trophy cabinet, and for a team that has been widely renowned for being one of the best teams in history, it begs the question, why haven’t they won it?


Is it Pep or the players? Luck or unluck? Fate or flaws? There’s been hope, there’s been pressure, but there has been way too much heartbreak as we analyse their last 5 years of Manchester City in the Champions League.


2017-18, Quarter-final exit. (Liverpool)

Manchester City’s 2017-18 team was hailed as one of the best in Premier League history, being labelled as ‘The Centurions’ after achieving a 100-point tally in the Premier League. They blew domestic competition out of the water, setting the most points, wins, goals, goal difference, and consecutive wins in Premier League history. The unrivalled success was marred by an underwhelming European campaign for the Citizens, in a season where they could’ve achieved anything. It was in fact an English team that knocked them out of the Champions League – Liverpool – who won 5-1 emphatically on aggregate. City brushed aside their group containing Shakhtar Donetsk, Napoli and Feyenoord easily, attaining five victories and one loss, and in the first leg of the Round of 16, they thrashed Basel 4-0. It was Liverpool who they fell short to, in the quarter-finals. Pep Guardiola was criticised for too much midfield coverage at Anfield – starting Fernandinho, David Silva, Kevin de Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan – who was forced on to the right wing for a lot of the game. The overcomplication of tactics and players out of position was one of the contributing factors to the 3-0 loss at Anfield which proved too difficult of a score line to reverse.

2018-19, Quarter-final exit. (Tottenham Hotspur)

Expectations were high for Manchester City heading into this Champions League campaign, after a successful season previously domestically. They managed to pull off a domestic treble in the 2018-19 campaign – but the Champions League remained their Achilles heel. Rather strangely (considering their record against English teams) Pep Guardiola fielded an overly-cautious strategy in the first leg to Spurs – benching Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sane. They lost 1-0 – conceding more shots and chances to Spurs. Sergio Aguero also missed a penalty – with Manchester City rueing that opportunity – as despite winning 4-3 in the return leg in a Champions League thriller – they headed out on away goals.

2019-20, Quarter-final exit. (Lyon)

A toothless display against Lyon gave Manchester City an embarrassing exit in another Champions League quarter-final. After an astonishing start to the competition (unbeaten in the group stages and knocking out Real Madrid in the Round of 16 with two wins) they fell short to the Ligue 1 outfit. A switch to a three-man defence and two holding midfielders proved another backfired Champions League call for Pep Guardiola – who’s team had failed once again in pursuit of the big one. They lacked their usual creativity – with star man Kevin De Bruyne finding himself on the right wing too often – and they crashed out courtesy of a first-half Maxwell Cornet strike and a second-half Moussa Dembele brace.

2020-21, Finalists. (Chelsea)

The Manchester club came within touching distance of Champions League glory in the 2020-21 season, where they won the Premier League and the EFL Cup. They fielded no striker and no holding midfielder in the final, with Bernardo Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and Phil Foden all starting. Despite the domination of possession, they lacked cutting edge, as Chelsea had more chances and shots. Kai Havertz delivered yet another painful Champions League exit to Manchester City – this time in the final – which left Pep Guardiola questioning his tactics once again. Chelsea carved them apart too easily for the goal in Porto – with Timo Werner dragging out John Stones with nobody tracking an oncoming Kai Havertz.

2021-22, Semi-final exit. (Real Madrid)

Premier League fans will remember last season for the enthralling title race with Liverpool that went right down to the wire. Manchester City fans will still have semi-final heartbreak to Real Madrid on their conscious ahead of tonight’s fixture. They topped their group despite suffering defeats to PSG and RB Leipzig, and surpassed Sporting and Atletico Madrid in the first two knockout rounds. They won the first leg against Real Madrid in the semi-finals and were two goals ahead on aggregate heading into the 90th minute of the second leg, with practically both feet in the final, but then Rodrygo happened. Real Madrid, the seasoned veterans of this competition, turned the game on its head and the Bernabeu into euphoria after a game which City had more possession, passes, chances, shots, and distance ran. 90th and 91st minute strikes by Rodrygo sent the game to extra-time, where Karim Benzema converted a spot-kick to send Manchester City home.

Today

Today could be the beginning of the end of the curse for Manchester City and Pep Guardiola – with the treble on the horizon and a final in sight. Pep told reporters: “I’m not overthinking tomorrow, don’t worry guys,” acknowledging journalists’ critiques of former campaigns, “It’s nothing special. Nothing different to what we have done in the past.

“We know how important it is tomorrow — maybe one of the most important ones. We can’t deny that, but I said to the players, enjoy the moment; how fortunate we are, how incredibly lucky we are to be here. We’ll do everything, give everything.”

“I have been here many times. We have to live this like a huge opportunity, enjoy the moment. We are lucky to be here. We are going to give everything to win one game to reach the final.”


It will be one for the history books, with Real Madrid, on paper, the biggest threat to the trophy – with an ‘easier’ final against Inter Milan. The overriding sense from the first leg was that despite possession for large parts of the game, the English side were cautious.


Watching the Manchester club in the Premier League – it is known for Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan to exploit space between the centre-backs and full-backs – creating chaos for the opposition. Manchester City didn’t do this, and Real Madrid kept Erling Haaland unusually quiet too.


Overloading on isolated defenders with overlapping runs is another defining move of City’s this season, something they were reluctant to do at the Bernabeu. Despite this, the main priority for Guardiola was maintaining professionalism and avoiding another Real Madrid UCL masterclass.


They defended maturely and didn’t boil over when Toni Kroos, Eduardo Camavinga and Dani Carvajal tried some dark arts over the first 90 minutes. The Vinicius Jr screamer against the run of play was a glimmer of what Los Blancos can do, but the damage was restricted to just one goal.


All eyes will be on the Etihad Stadium come 8pm tonight, with Pep Guardiola hoping not to overcomplicate things as his side chase the treble.

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