Jaws then hit the ground. A disconsolate collection of players. Manchester City was shocked by about 300 friends and family. The feeling lingered late into the night and back on the plane.
That it felt a bit like Lyon – when they lost in last season’s Champions League quarter-finals – was the most devastating aspect of the weekend: the same old team selection questions, the same old collective mistakes that contributed to their downfall.
This has been City in Europe: performances to make their supporters believe, only to leave them dumbfounded by the reasons behind the subsequent failure.
Why Pep Guardiola decided to leave his captain, Fernandinho, kicked the bench with his heels, was Porto’s talk beforehand.
Manchester City was defeated 1-0 by Chelsea in the Champions League final on Saturday
It didn’t do much to counter the criticism when the designated midfielder, Ilkay Gundogan, messed up the kick-off and immediately gave the ball away.
In his most basic form, Guardiola chose the club’s top scorer this season to screen his back four in the biggest game on the continent. It did not work.
The City manager wanted as many ball players on the field as possible, thinking they would dominate the ball, recycle possession, keep it moving and wear out Chelsea. Gundogan’s inclusion as a No. 6 therefore makes sense, but forget that two teams form a match. Chelsea was also allowed to come up with plans and Thomas Tuchel was too smart, his players too energetic.
City had rehearsed the set-up throughout the week, even before arriving in Portugal. The team knew the score and knew what their manager expected.
Just like against Lyon last August, they were not at their best individually; not even in the same galaxy as the players who won another league title earlier this month.
A series of collective mistakes saw Chelsea win the trophy and become champions of Europe
Guardiola decided to start the Champions League final without Fernandinho or Rodri
That’s what will annoy everyone at the club: the feeling of not doing themselves justice. As players and staff gathered with their loved ones, there was a gloomy atmosphere of regret.
Chelsea may have won the final with a beautiful passage of play through City lines – and the exclusion of Fernandinho or Rodri was crucial to its simplicity – but Guardiola’s passing junkies went cold.
There was very little craft in their cartridges, very little spells when they had their opponents hunt in areas they would rather not. Oddly enough, City’s play lost the patience that usually marks them as such a special and imposing outfit. They were strangely nervous.
Kevin De Bruyne, who seemed physically and mentally exhausted at the end of the Premier League season, was not up to par in the false nine position he has captured in recent times. He played a little too loosely with not enough precision, but he wasn’t alone.
Raheem Sterling, the surprise recording, posed a threat on the left and looked vibrant, but fans wondered why Phil Foden wasn’t simply told to continue his good form on that grand piano.
It took City a while – ‘a while’ is a number of months – to recover from the defeat to Lyon. Such shocks to the systems can cause that problem, especially if they self-inflicted. This felt the same way, so how will they react when Guardiola welcomes them in July?
Kevin De Bruyne, who seemed physically and mentally exhausted at the end of the Premier League season, was not up to par in the false nine position he has captured in recent times.
Fans also wondered why she wasn’t just told to continue her good form on that grand piano
He will remind them that this season was a success and that he will rightly do so. The big job was to finally break that mental block of the quarterfinals, the hoodoo that has plagued Guardiola’s government as a manager. The last four meeting with Paris Saint-Germain and all their attacking flair had the feel of a free hit, and one they embraced. But when it got hot, there was a lack of exuberance – the legs flexed and the mind scrambled.
Guardiola will hope that this crushing low will push his team to new heights, as there is only one thing left for this collection of players to reach now.
What he has to fend off is the kind of mope that strangled Tottenham after losing another all-English final against Liverpool two years ago. Instead, City should look to Chelsea, who learned it as a club after a defeat to Manchester United in 2008.
Guardiola spoke pragmatically beforehand, reasoning that this stage was new and City may not get into it right away. His and the club’s opponents will scoff, pointing to the money spent on transfers, although that doesn’t explain that even a group of expensive players can still grapple with the mental hardships of such an opportunity.
What the finances are doing, however, is putting City in a much better position to come back than Tottenham in 2019.
They will invest, they will refresh the squad as much as possible in this strange transfer market and you would not bet they will arrive in St. Petersburg around this time next year.
But as they sulked on their way to the flight home, everyone at City knew this was a missed golden opportunity.