It was a night for Manchester City to make history, yet by the time Damir Skomina had blown the final whistle the 4,500 English supporters in the Bernabeu wanted to quickly consign the match to the past. Early promise followed by incompetence sold as misfortune and eventual limp disappointment. That could be the tagline of Manuel Pellegrini’s tenure.
There is no shame in losing at a stadium where Real Madrid had won 14 of their last 15 matches, scoring 68 times in the process and conceding nine, but there are ways to exit a competition. This was embarrassingly meek. If Tottenham’s Premier League title challenge ended in literal fight on Monday, this was the opposite. City made 12 tackles in the opening 70 minutes. Sergio Aguero endured his fifth straight Champions League game without a shot on target.
It is better to have tried and failed, and City barely even tried at all. For much of the game they were sleepier than the summer afternoon that follows liquid lunch, despite needing only one goal to qualify during the entire 90 minutes. If this was the biggest night in the club’s history, few of Pellegrini’s players seemed to get the memo.
Some might remark that an army is a reflection of its leader. Pellegrini will leave Manchester – and perhaps England too – with plenty of friends, but far too little progress for the expenditure afforded. Some managers thrive on the big occasions through a mix of inspiration and perspiration. Pellegrini’s signature is the opposite; neither proaction nor reaction comes quickly enough.
Once Pep Guardiola gets over the guilt of his fraudulent management at Bayern Munich (this content management system doesn’t have a sarcasm font), he will realise that the job facing him at the Etihad Stadium is a far tougher assignment than the one in Germany. City’s squad is littered with those who can be loosely filed under either not good enough, no longer good often enough or won’t be good enough for much longer.
Those three groups welcome Fernandinho (31), Pablo Zabaleta (31), Martin Demichelis (35), Bacary Sagna (33), Yaya Toure (32), Fernando, Eliaquim Mangala, Gael Clichy, Fabian Delph, Aleksandar Kolarov, Jesus Navas and Wilfried Bony. Half a squad, in other words.
In the Bernabeu, Toure and Navas were the worst culprits. The Ivorian at least has the excuse of recent injury, but created no chances, had no shots and made no tackles. Navas is one of the most frustrating attacking players in European football. Three years after arriving in England, we’re still waiting for him to deliver two decent crosses in succession.
One name not on that list is Vincent Kompany, yet it is Manchester City’s captain who may cause Guardiola the biggest headache of all. Starting just his 20th domestic game of the season, Kompany lasted ten minutes before another injury ended his participation.
“Rotten luck for Manchester City,” declared Gary Lineker at half-time on Kompany’s departure. Unfortunately, that’s nonsense. It is certainly unlucky for Kompany himself that he continues to be afflicted by persistent injuries, but City can hardly plead surprise. The last time Kompany started more than ten consecutive City games was December 2012. He’s not managed more than six in a row since March 2015.
Since August 2013, Kompany’s setbacks reads like a depressing piece of beat poetry: Groin, hamstring, groin, hamstring, hamstring, muscle, calf, calf, calf, calf, calf. City’s captain has had more calf problems in the last 12 months than a careless cow.
Kompany is far from the perfect central defender, but he’s also the best City have got. As the club’s captain and defensive leader, he marshals the defensive line. Less than ten minutes after his substitution, Nicolas Otamendi played Gareth Bale onside, and his shot deflected off Fernando and past Joe Hart. The limpness of City’s response made that game over.
It would be a wrench for City to move Kompany from centre stage. No player better epitomises their rise under Sheikh Mansour, and none care more about the club. The Belgian deserves a huge amount of sympathy for his body’s inability to survive the rigours of a 50-game season. Yet Guardiola has no remit for sentiment. The possible arrival of Aymeric Laporte this summer will only muddy the water further.
The mischievous among us may wonder whether Guardiola would have been relieved by Manchester City’s semi-final exit on Wednesday, the bar set slightly less high for the most lauded coach in world football. If that’s true, you’d forgive him. After months of being unfairly accused of only taking the easy options, Pep’s City to-do list is getting longer by the week.