Manchester City will likely win a domestic double this season, all but claiming the Premier League title after winning the League Cup.
Yet to some, it will feel like a disappointment. City’s elimination by Liverpool in the quarterfinals of the Champions League on Tuesday was fairly unexpected. Liverpool held onto its 3-0 first leg shocker with a slightly fortuitous 2-1 come-from-behind win for a staggering 5-1 aggregate score.
So transcendent has City been for much of this season — the current run of three straight losses excepted — that a third treble in a decade felt like a realistic possibility, never mind that City had only reached the semifinals once in six previous Champions League campaigns.
Such is the zero-sum nature of life in the scorching-hot managerial seats of England’s richest clubs.
Back in August, at the beginning of this eventful soccer season, the expectations on perhaps a half dozen Premier League managers was more or less the same. Win something. Lifting the Champions League would be nice. But a league title would do as well. At the very least, they had to be competitive for it until the last few match-days. And if they weren’t, not even an FA Cup trophy would guarantee continued employment.
Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola was backed with $220 million worth of reinforcements in defense and in goal alone — and he got another $80 backup defender in January — beefing up the only lines where his superteam was thin.
Across town, Jose Mourinho and United once again spent piles of cash to further strengthen what was already one of the deepest teams ever assembled. Liverpool gained some of the best signings of the season in Mohamed Salah and Virgil van Dijk — the latter in the winter break — to finally give Jurgen Klopp the weapons needed to play with the best teams.
Tottenham Hotspur once again managed to hold onto Mauricio Pochettino’s young core and added nice pieces in defenders Davinson Sanchez and Serge Aurier; while defending champions Chelsea managed to gain considerable depth, which somehow still wasn’t enough to satisfy Antonio Conte — but that’s beside the point.
Even Arsenal spent big, picking up Alex Lacazette in the summer and, more recently, forwards Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, to give the club a deeper cache of attacking weaponry than it has ever had. If Arsene Wenger couldn’t win with these guys, after all those years of disappointment, he surely had to go, the thinking went.
With all that money spent at the top of the Premier League’s ever-intensifying arms race, there were no plausible excuses left at all. Which meant that all these men needed to win, but only one actually could. Or perhaps two, if another English club finally won the European crown again.
Never was this unforgiving dichotomy so manifestly obvious as in Guardiola and Klopp’s head-to-head matchup for a place among Europe’s last four. Guardiola needed to advance, or this sensational season would be affixed with a fat asterisk. Klopp wasn’t expected to go any further, but another deep run into Europe — after losing the Europa League final two seasons ago — would likely safeguard his job for at least another year, no matter what transpired in the last chapter of the league season.
But following Liverpool’s unlikely thrashing of City in the first leg, the traffic mostly flowed in the other direction in Manchester, as scripted.
In under two minutes, City cut the lead by a third. Liverpool’s defensive rock van Dijk, of all people, turned the ball over needlessly in midfield. Fernandinho sent through a perfect ball for Raheem Sterling, whose pressure had helped force van Dijk into an error. The fleet-footed forward displayed once again that he’s a much better passer than a finisher, leaving that job to the wide-open Gabriel Jesus to his left, who slotted the ball past Loris Karius to apply instant pressure to the Reds.
As the half progressed, City sprayed a barrage of balls into Liverpool’s box for the visitors to bail out, a tide that rose quickly and seemingly inevitably. In the 41st minute, Bernardo Silva smashed a ball off the far post from outside the box, which took a slight deflection off Dejan Lovren’s head.
And some 30 seconds later, Leroy Sane was denied a scrambled goal for offside after a ball caromed into his path off Liverpool captain James Milner’s leg. It probably should have stood. And if it had, it would surely have been seminal, shaving Liverpool’s lead down to a single goal.
But it didn’t. And Guardiola, understanding the implications instantly, was so incensed that he confronted referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz, a fellow Spaniard, and was summarily ejected before the game could even resume.
The red dagger came from Mohamed Salah, Liverpool’s talisman. Sadio Mane, crucially returned from injury, bulled his way across the box, forcing a save from Ederson, who couldn’t lock down the ball. Salah picked it up and then chipped it into the empty goal some 10 minutes after halftime.
That largely broke City’s resistance as the cameras lingered on a glum Guardiola way up in the stands. There was little he could do from there, no matter the substitutions he ordered through his assistants. And things only get worse when Roberto Firmino dispossessed Nicolas Otamendi, charged the goal and rolled in Liverpool’s winner with a delicately placed shot in the 77th minute.
The unlikely away victory gave Klopp seven wins in head-to-head games against Guardiola, two more than any other manager. And, just as significantly, he prevented the laureled Spaniard from taking both the big prizes this year.
Only one of them could win.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.