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Pep Guardiola understood how this might go. He knew that things were different this year, that the resumption of the UEFA Champions League in an accelerated format, going from two-legged ties to straight knockout games, had already yielded surprises. Paris Saint-Germain’s injury-time comeback against Atalanta. RB Leipzig’s upset of Atletico Madrid. Bayern Munich’s astonishing 8-2 pulverization of Barcelona.
“Every game is a final from now on,” the Catalan Manchester City manager declared ahead of Saturday’s quarterfinal vs. Lyon. “Playing just a single game makes it quite different. … In this situation there is no second chance. You either go through or go home.”
Guardiola would have also understood that with defending European and English champion Liverpool already out, as well as Spanish champion Real Madrid and Italian champion Juventus, there was added pressure and opportunity for City to finally break through in the Champions League, to finally deliver the trophy the club has grown obsessed with. A semifinal against Guardiola’s former club, Bayern, loomed. But there wasn’t any team left in the competition that was unbeatable. Hardly.
And only Lyon stood in the way of a second semifinal in City’s history.
Only Lyon. Lyon, which barely scraped through the group stage with two wins from six, advancing only when it made a furious two-goal comeback in its final game against RB Leipzig. Lyon, which finished seventh in Ligue 1. Lyon, whose upset of Juve in the round of 16 was a stunner.
But a strange 24th-minute goal from Maxwel Cornet and two late goals from Moussa Dembele lifted Lyon past Manchester City 3-1, ensuring the semifinals will, remarkably, include no clubs from England, Spain or Italy. That made it three straight quarterfinal eliminations for City, and nine seasons since Guardiola has managed a team into the Champions League final.
City’s history in the knockout stages of this hallowed competition remains just as unhappy. It has been seven straight seasons of spring-time action on the continent, ever since the ownership from Abu Dhabi remade Manchester’s moribund second club. In 2016, it broke through to the semifinals, beating Dynamo Kyiv and then PSG, but then ran into eventual champion Real Madrid. In 2017, City regressed to a round of 16 elimination in a wacky 6-6 aggregate loss to Monaco on away goals.
Two seasons ago, City was hammered 5-1 on aggregate by Liverpool in the quarterfinals. Last year, Tottenham Hotspur snuck past City on away goals with a great deal of help from fortune and VAR.
Now, this season, City slayed the Real Madrid dragon in the round of 16 only to fall to France’s seventh-best team.
Guardiola once again broke the glass on some overcomplicated emergency tactics in a key European game. As so often when a European crown has appeared on the horizon, he changed things up, continuing his habit of kneecapping his team when it mattered most. Whatever the point was —perhaps to match Lyon’s shape to create one-on-ones? — it likely wasn’t made.
In just its third competitive game since early March, Lyon defended tightly and pressed well, ceding the ball to City but allowing them to do little with it for most of the first half. Raheem Sterling foraged deep into the Lyon box a few times but couldn’t connect with a teammate.
And then, entirely against the grain of the game, a simple ball over the top of City’s high defensive line found Karl Toko Ekambi. His effort was blocked well by Eric Garcia, but rolled free to Cornet. The Ivorian caught Ederson in no man’s land and curled the ball around the Brazilian goalkeeper and into the empty net.
City soon righted itself and began crafting chances. They came on in a drip at first, and then more quickly.
As the second half wore on, Lyon cracked under City’s pressure. In the 69th minute, Sterling once again got behind the defense on the flank and cut back for Kevin de Bruyne, who finished cleanly for the equalizer.
City was all over Lyon, and seemed to be getting closer to a winner. But a cheap City midfield giveaway begat a Lyon breakaway. Ekambi, obviously offside, let the ball run through his legs without touching it, for Moussa Dembele to lope away with. He scampered through all alone and slipped his finish through Ederson’s legs.
All seemed lost for City when Sterling had the equalizer on a silver platter for a close tap-in but somehow sent it sky-high.
Sure enough, in the 87th minute, as City pushed forward for the desperately needed goal, Ederson spilled a simple save on a shot from Houssem Aouar. Dembele put the game out of reach with a tap-in.
Several times as yet another European campaign unraveled in front of him, Guardiola slumped to the grass, brought to his knees by the incomprehensible misfortunes that continued to befall his side when a European season neared its climax.
Guardiola had known this was a possibility. He had predicted it. It was indeed exciting. Team Chaos took another one.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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