Pep Guardiola fears history repeating itself after Man City lose control in Real Madrid thriller
If the natural inclination is to wonder how Pep Guardiola felt about this remarkable match, given his Manchester City team should have killed the tie on the night, it is perhaps the words of Carlo Ancelotti that best explain why it is still “alive”.
The Italian described the comparative - and crucial - lack of emotion within his Real Madrid team.
“In the moment, it’s very important not to lose your heads,” Ancelotti said after this raucous 4-3. “That’s a characteristic of this team. We’ve seen it so many times. The shoulders never drop. The heads remain cold.”
That wasn’t just a statement of demonstrable fact, though. It could also serve as a psychological ploy. Because, quite simply, there is no guarantee City will be able to do the same.
The Champions League history of this team, and this manager, is filled with examples to the contrary; of moments when they just spiral out of control.
The great danger for the return leg is that this tie has even more elements than usual to foster a similar collapse. It is precisely the sort of situation that will be playing on Guardiola’s mind, and could condition him into another “tactical episode”.
And it once again comes down to “control”.
City didn’t just have control of this game, after all. They had the tie in their hands. They should have been out of sight as early as the half-hour, and long before Karim Benzema - of course - turned the whole semi-final. That little spell to make it 2-1 was instructive, and may yet be the most influential of all.
City had been eviscerating Madrid, and Benzema was infuriated by it. He was getting impatient. So impatient that, when his team finally got a corner, he made a point of sprinting over and taking it quickly. The message was to sharpen up, as he insisted on again leading by example. Benzema then offered the ultimate example, by just going and scoring from an improbable position.
City never again had the game under the same command. They still had the chances to win the tie on the night, of course.
There were so many moments when the ball just seemed to flash across Thibaut Courtois’ goal. There was even Phil Foden having a point-blank shot blocked after Riyad Mahrez hit the post.
The Algerian almost personified City’s entire display. He was brilliant, often elevating the performance to new levels. The touch on the run to perplex Nacho for that shot off the post was sublime, and was in its own way as wondrous as Vinicius’ dummy nutmeg on Fernandinho. And yet it was still one of a few moments that culminated in Mahrez being completely wasteful.
Guardiola’s reaction to those was an insight into that mindset. There was so much agitation and anxiety.
For Vinicius’ dummy, he sank to his knees with his head in his hands in almost comic fashion. Vinicius was at that point nowhere near goal. It was remarkable.
Inherent to that theatrical response was not Guardiola’s football intelligence, and his foresight of what was bound to come: a Vinicius goal. There was also what he’d seen before.
So much of the tie had hallmarks of so many Guardiola eliminations of the past. This is the great frustration for him, that feeds into so many moments of “overthinking”.
It is that some of his most traumatic eliminations have come despite - and sometimes because of - some of his greatest ever performances.
Consider the list as far back as the last time he won the trophy, in 2011.
All of the eliminations to Chelsea 2012, Barcelona 2015, Monaco 2017, Liverpool 2018, Tottenham Hotspur 2019 and - above all - Atletico Madrid 2016 had long spells that were almost perfect Guardiola displays. They were career exhibitions, exactly how he would want the game to be played.
And yet his teams still went out. They were still hostage to those moments that go out of control.
That is what hangs over a display as good as this. That is why there is that ominous feeling over a game where - let’s remember - City scored four goals against Real Madrid and still won. It is the fear of what could come, based on the memory of what has happened before.
There was another conspicuous line in Guardiola’s own press conference in that regard.
“Against Madrid, always you have to perform well. They are able to score three goals in 10 minutes. They have that ability.”
It was a curious comment because it wasn’t what happened on Tuesday night. Madrid scored after 33, 55 and 82 minutes.
It’s just that Guardiola has suffered it so often before. That was the story of Chelsea 2012, Barcelona 2015, Monaco 2017, Liverpool 2018 and Tottenham 2019. All were lost in flurries.
Now, it was almost as if Guardiola was foreshadowing similar. It is clearly playing on his mind.
He is now going to have to do what Madrid have made a hallmark of their own. He is going to have to stay cool.
City have the lead. They also have a lot of hang-ups. Madrid meanwhile have the Bernabeu.
“We need another magic night,” Ancelotti said. It is certainly the set-up for another thrilling night.