HAVING bested Real Madrid last Friday, Manchester City have reached a Champions League quarter-final for a third consecutive year under Pep Guardiola. This is impressive. It is. Even so, they have yet to make it to the last four and it’s starting to become a ‘thing’.
If defeats to Liverpool and Spurs at this stage in previous years are too small a sample size to believe any kind of curse is afoot it does warrant pointing out that strange events typically occur when continental glory is in sight for the Blues.
Against Jurgen Klopp’s men in 2018 woeful officiating denied them the opportunity to atone for a first leg loss at Anfield while a Fernando Llorente handball twelve months later was deemed so unfair it subsequently persuaded UEFA to tweak their rules. In that latter game a dramatic late winner was struck off too courtesy of a stray Aguero kneecap.
So a curse, no, that would be an exaggeration. Fate however does tend to conspire against City at this juncture.
All of which partly explains the cautious mood that is prevalent among the City fan-base ahead of this weekend’s trip to Lisbon to take on a Lyon side very much in the ascendency. It is always infinitely more revealing to test the temperature of supporters over placing any real stock in upbeat missives emanating from clubs, and when City’s opponents were decided there was relief certainly because who wants to face Juventus right? There was also plenty of wariness though, with a word cropping up time and again to describe the French team. They are ‘dangerous’.
What a back-handed compliment that is, intimating that Olympique Lyonnais, to give them their full and cooler name are a very decent outfit when in the groove but are elsewhere limited. In this instance however it is a back-handed compliment that is bang on the money.
Since taking charge last October Rudi Garcia has revitalised a club that dominated Ligue 1 in the 2000s before losing their way. The goals of Moussa Dembele provide a reliable and invaluable end product to the stylish football Garcia demands – the ex-Celtic striker has scored 45 times across all competitions in his last two campaigns – while the autumnal reinvention of Memphis Depay continues. In midfield 20-year-old Maxence Caqueret is fast becoming France’s next-big-thing and he parades his considerable potential alongside France’s current next-big-thing Houssem Aouar.
The presence of Aouar intrigues, seeing as he is a legitimate Manchester City target in this window and no doubt several pundits will glibly detail his participation this Saturday as an ‘audition’. In fact, at the risk of speaking out of turn he passed his audition a good while back and it would be immensely surprising if the pass-master isn’t lining up in sky blue when the Premier League kicks off again.
| Pep Guardiola on UCL quarter-final:
— City Chief (@City_Chief) August 8, 2020
But, back to Lyon, and what perhaps should most encourage them and most unsettle Pep and co is the resolve they have unearthed in recent times. In their last two outings they have held Paris Saint-Germain over 120 minutes in the Coupe de la Ligue final and withstood everything Juventus threw at them in Turin. For all their silky smooth fare there is steel beneath.
Yet still, this is a side that finished seventh in Ligue 1 this past season. This is a side that lost Ferland Mendy, Tanguy Ndombele and Nabil Fekir last summer. This is a side that arguably is not as good as the Lyon who took four points off City in the group stage 18 months ago. They are dangerous but limited and to put this into perspective let’s return to Aouar again. He is brilliant for sure and keeps his team ticking along just fine. Yet up until French football went into lockdown in March the Under 21 international had scored three times and made three assists. In that same period; and from a similar position Kevin De Bruyne scored eight and created 16 assists. There are levels.
Unquestionably Lyon are the underdogs this Saturday but in keeping with the mood of the City fan-base what is striking above all else is the threat they pose. It is a threat makes them and this tie unpredictable and given the surprising and strange events that have unseated the Blues in this tournament of late maybe that’s the last thing they want to go up against.
Maybe even, in that context, the reliable might of Juventus would have been preferable after all?