16 May 2022 | 08:01 | Football
Manchester City are used to the pain of the Champions League, but their latest loss to Real Madrid may have been the most painful.
Four times Pep Guardiola’s army had a two-goal advantage in the semi-final first leg, they eventually lost 6-5 on aggregate.
13-time champions Madrid somehow found a way to win as Man City, defeated finalists last year, dissipated into the white-hot atmosphere of the Santiago Bernabeu on Wednesday.
In 89 minutes, the English champions showed maturity built over more than a decade of competition but in 90 seconds their best plans were destroyed.
Riyad Mahrez’s stunning strike in the 17th minute gave the visitors a 1-0 lead on the night and 5-3 on aggregate, seemingly ending the contest.
Madrid hadn’t even concentrated a shot on target until Rodrygo swept a Karim Benzema pass as stoppage time approached.
Suddenly, the trusting Bernabeu home team and one of the most assembled teams in the world could not succumb to Real’s shock like Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea did in the previous two rounds.
Rodrygo headed back in less than a minute of the six added and might even have had a hat-trick before extra time started.
In the end, fittingly, it was Benzema who delivered the final blow from the penalty spot to deliver an unlikely victory in a draw where Madrid had led for 178 minutes.
It is a case of history repeating itself – neither Madrid’s resistance nor Guardiola’s team managed to negotiate the good margins that define the latter stage of the Champions League.
It has now been 11 years since he won the second of his two European Cups as a coach at Barcelona.
In the 10 seasons he has coached Barca, Bayern Munich and Man City since then, he has lost a final – last year’s 0-1 defeat to Chelsea, five semi-finals and three quarter-finals.
The 51-year-old said: “I always have such difficult defeats in the Champions League. “It’s been difficult for us, we can’t deny it, we’re very close to a Champions League final.”
Man City, who have never been crowned European champions, will have a place in next season, possibly retrofitted with the Erling Haaland cannon, with reports suggesting the Norwegian will move to the Etihad from Borussia Dortmund.
Before that, Guardiola had to rekindle a group of mentally and physically exhausted players to avoid ending the season without a title for the first time since the 2016/17 campaign.
Man City are leading by one point against Liverpool – who reached the Champions League final by beating Villarreal – topping the Premier League with four games remaining.
“We need time now,” admitted Guardiola, who hosts Newcastle on Sunday, the day after Liverpool play Tottenham. “A day or two but we will rise, we have to do it.
“The players gave everything. We were very close, but in the end it didn’t work out.”
A much-anticipated clash between England’s top two teams will not take place in Paris on May 28, with Liverpool instead facing Madrid for the third time in a Champions League final.
But it remains in the hands of Man City to deny the Reds a historic treble.
Win their last four games and Guardiola will win his 10th league title after 13 seasons at Barca, Bayern and City.
That record is what makes the Catalan coach one of the most revered of all time.
But the trophy that he and Man City won together is still out of reach.
Despite the huge sums invested by owners based in Abu Dhabi, the club cannot buy the confidence that decades of Champions League success have brought both Madrid and Liverpool.
Real take 14th place in the Champions League in Paris, while Liverpool will join AC Milan in becoming the second most successful club in the history of the competition with seven titles with victory at the Stade de France.
The city will rejoice with only one.
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