London (AFP) – Manchester City’s meek exit from the Champions League following Wednesday’s 1-0 semi-final second leg defeat by Real Madrid suggested that incoming head coach Pep Guardiola cannot arrive quickly enough.
While Fernando’s first-half own goal at the Bernabeu was all that separated the teams, City barely laid a glove on Zinedine Zidane’s men, registering just two shots on target over the 180 minutes of the tie.
Manuel Pellegrini, who Guardiola will replace, argued that there had been nothing between the sides, but players, fans and pundits were united in expressing their frustration.
City went “out with a whimper”, according to the back-page headline in The Times, while the Daily Mail’s Martin Samuel said that the team were “sleepwalking” under Pellegrini.
Analysing the match for BT Sport, the former Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand said: “If you’re going to go out, you want to go out all guns blazing, fighting.
“You want to think, ‘We’ve given it everything we’ve got, we’ve thrown the kitchen sink at it.’ I don’t think they’ll be able to go home or go into the changing room and say that. And that’s the disappointing thing.”
City goalkeeper Joe Hart chose his words more carefully, but the annoyance was visible on his face during a televised post-match interview.
“We just didn’t have that little bit more,” said the England goalkeeper. “Did we do enough to win the game? I don’t know.”
Frustration manifested itself on the pitch, too, as lone striker Sergio Aguero, starved of any kind of service, dropped deeper and deeper in search of the ball.
City’s top scorer this season with 28 goals, the Argentina international mustered just two shots — both off-target — during the tie and has now gone five Champions League games without registering an effort on target.
Record signing Kevin De Bruyne, inspiration behind the quarter-final victory over Paris Saint-Germain, struggled to influence proceedings after being moved to the left flank to accommodate Yaya Toure, whose lumbering performance was described as “woeful” by The Daily Telegraph.
– Kompany vulnerable –
Having fallen foul of Guardiola during his time at Barcelona, the hulking Ivorian is expected to form part of a close-season clear-out at the Etihad Stadium.
Raheem Sterling, City’s other big-money attacking signing for this season, along with De Bruyne, was given only half an hour to make a difference and when he won a free-kick in a promising position wide on the left, De Bruyne wasted it by going for goal.
But at least in Aguero, De Bruyne, Sterling and the injured David Silva, Guardiola possesses the nimbleness of thought and foot in attack upon which he has built success with Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
City have been the top-scoring Premier League team in all three of Pellegrini’s seasons at the helm, but although he loudly espouses attacking football, victories often owe more to flashes of individual brilliance than a cohesive, identifiable attacking strategy.
There is also work for Guardiola to do in defence, particularly as captain Vincent Kompany’s physical vulnerability — he succumbed to the 33rd injury of his eight-year City tenure in Madrid — is becoming a serious concern.
Neither Nicolas Otamendi nor Eliaquim Mangala, both acquired at lavish expense, have convinced, but Guardiola’s work with Javi Martinez — a holding midfielder turned centre-back — at Bayern shows that he has the patience for defensive grunt work on the training ground.
“Pep Guardiola has a huge job on his hands,” said Ferdinand.
“It’s not a confident team, like the one he got at Bayern. This is a totally different proposition.”
In the immediate short-term, City face a battle to hold onto the fourth and final Champions League qualifying spot, beginning with Sunday’s high-stakes home game with third-place Arsenal.
With Manchester United and West Ham United poised to exploit any missteps, Guardiola’s chances of being able to show what he can do in the Champions League next season are in Pellegrini’s hands.
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