No team had ever lost a Uefa Champions League first leg knock-out tie after shipping five goals and bounced back to qualify for the next round until A.S. Monaco did it on Wednesday evening against Manchester City.
Although theirs was a 3-5 first-leg loss, to turn the tables and beat City 3-1 at Stade Louis II in France was remarkable. In many ways, especially considering their economic standing and less pedigree, Monaco puts Barcelona’s feat over PSG a week ago in the shade.
However, Monaco also went further to expose elements of tactical naivety from City coach Pep Guardiola, and it is worrying. Going into the second leg, the picture from the first leg had to have a big influence on Guardiola’s picks. Monaco had already shown him they were not afraid to run over his midfield and put three goals past his defence on his own turf.
In other words, on home turf, they would even be more disrespecting and passionate, to prove a point. They were the underdogs in this tie, at least in the eyes of many. So, Guardiola had to guard against Monaco’s unrelenting approach by ensuring that some physical and gritty players were fielded.
Yaya Toure and Nicolas Otamendi had no business being on the bench. It is for that reason Fernandinho was overrun in the first half by the huge and physical Tiemoue Bakayoko and Fabinho. Aleksandr Kolarov and John Stones’ loose marking, and evident lack of steel, was exposed.
The finishing by young forward Kylian Mbappe and defender-cum-midfielder Fabinho, right within the heart of City’s penalty area, was sublime; Thierry Henry should have been pleased. But the lack of muscle in that City defence, let alone the midfield, was disconcerting.
And against a team playing to prove a point, who play beyond their limits like Monaco did, even against Arsenal two years ago, Guardiola could not claim to have been oblivious of that. If he did, it would be sacrilegious and unacceptable.
Of course it goes without saying that Guardiola expects City to play like his former teams, Bayern Munich and Barcelona. It is no sin to aim that high. But that can only happen in phases, which City has to go through without thinking that football is magic, where you simply swing your magic wand and things happen.
It is a process. And in City’s case, unlike what Bayern and Barcelona had under Guardiola, they have not mastered how to hide the ball from opponents until kingdom come. So, that gives opponents a chance to match them and also create a few scoring chances.
And that is where City’s biggest fundamental problem begins. If you cannot keep the ball much longer than your opponent, the defence has got to be rock solid. There has got to be tenacity in the tackle and a domineering presence in the air; something like Tony Adams and Martin Keown.
Once, in an encounter between Arsenal and Bayern at Highbury, Brazilian striker Giovanni Elber confessed that he had never had such a torrid time in his career as he had being marked by those two Arsenal stalwarts.
In fact, although Elber was such a sly forward, he struggled against Arsenal because, as he put it, each time he raced onto the ball, he felt the earth behind him shaking because of the approaching Adams and Keown. They were as scary as a horror movie.
That game finished 2-2. That was the kind of result which would have sufficed for City, and they would be in the draw today if Guardiola had seen the importance of Otamendi and Yaya.
That late header from Bakayoko would have been kept out, but Kolarov failed to do so because of his known limitations as a good header of the ball in the defensive perspective. It should be noted that right from the time the draw was made, it was evident City had far more quality across the board compared to Monaco.
Therefore, a performance to match was warranted. But the second leg turned out to be disappointing. Guardiola cannot justify failing to defend a 5-3 lead he took to Monaco. Besides, Monaco were without their first leg two goal hero, Radamel Falcao.
Fate (not a referee like in the Barcelona-PSG case a week ago) had conspired to help City progress, which is fine. But to bow out the way they did is a big shame to Guardiola, and he ought to style up.