There’s not much in football more thrilling than a last minute winner. None know that more so than Manchester City fans, who all have the numbers 93:20 burned into our collective memories for precisely that reason. The last kick, not just of the game but the Premier League season, which meant that City took their first ever Premier League title. It’s a feeling that will probably never, ever be replicated in our lives.
Now, just imagine how QPR fans might have felt if their Premier League survival hinged on that goal. As it was, their survival had already been secured by Bolton only managing to get a point out of Stoke, so City’s late resurgence had no impact on the moods of the QPR fans in the ground. If Sergio Aguero’s goal had doomed them to a season in the Championship, however, it would be the very antithesis of the 93:20 moment. A Mike Tyson sucker punch right in the kidneys.
That sucker punch is one I’ve felt only once before.
17th April 2019 – Raheem Sterling scores a last minute goal against Tottenham which has cemented City’s place in the Champions League semi-finals for the first time in the club’s history. He wheels away in celebration as I bounce around the Etihad Stadium, shins battering the chairs in front of me as I knock a phone out of the hand of whoever was stood behind me (although, let’s be honest, his priorities were all wrong if he had his phone out in that moment, he deserved it).
Then, just as quickly as the utter pandemonium begins, it’s gone. From the highest of highs, a rare high which almost equals Aguero’s moment against QPR, to the lowest of the lows as the goal is ruled out for offside.
It was from that moment that I decided the Champions League wasn’t for me. I was well on my way already due to UEFA’s Executive Committee very clearly having it in for Manchester City, seeing it comprised almost entirely of City’s rivals, and a slew of refereeing decisions in the years prior which had seemed questionable at best. There were already several nails in the Champions League’s coffin by the time that goal was ruled out. This was just the biggest and deepest one which ensured that no graverobbers would be able to defile the remains.
There’s a tweet from Ste Tudor which I saw the other night which I think perfectly encapsulates the luck (or lack thereof) we’ve had in the competition so far.
Maybe this one just isn’t meant for us. We’ve got everything else. We’ve got the best manager in the world, several players who can make a serious claim for being the best in the world in their respective positions and a trophy haul over the last half a decade that does them some serious justice. The one hurdle which the club has yet to overcome is the Champions League.
There’s been a varying number of reasons for this over the years and now probably isn’t the time for me to question why Pep Guardiola chose a starting XI in a Champions League final which didn’t have a defensive midfielder in it, but ultimately there are very few teams in the world which have experienced the glut of domestic trophies we’ve had in such a short space of time, even less have managed to combine it with European success. Even the greats can’t be great at everything – Shaquille O’Neal couldn’t even free throw.
So, let’s address the Bernabéu-sized elephant in the room.
Firstly, my Twitter account got locked some time in the second half because apparently saying that Fernandinho, Casemiro and Fabinho all have favela magic which stops them from getting yellow cards when they should is Twitter’s idea of a hate crime. So I was unable to engage with the utter meltdown which ensued over the course of the night from about the 90th minute onwards, which was a real shame because I’d probably have directed everybody to the “Controversies and legal issues” section of Karim Benzema’s Wikipedia page shortly after he scored his penalty if I had been able.
There’s been a lot of discussion about blame, so let’s go through them all one by one.
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Are the players to blame? Well, yes and no. It’s a funny one because I simultaneously believe that everybody who started that game, with the exception of Kyle Walker and Bernardo Silva, was pathetically bad throughout the 90 minutes, and I include Riyad Mahrez in that who ultimately scored the important goal that gave us the lead. Yet I also don’t think that anybody really did anything particularly wrong.
Kevin De Bruyne was well off the pace, Phil Foden offered very little, 75% of the back four was all over the place, it was not at all a convincing performance from the overwhelming majority of the squad.
Yet that team held Madrid to zero shots on target until the 90th minute, when a couple of moments of quality led to Rodrygo’s first goal. Can you point individual fingers of blame at specific players during the goal? Yeah, probably. You can find individuals at fault for any goal if you try hard enough. As for the second goal, well, it’s a world class cross and a great header after getting a very fortunate slight touch off Asensio who had tried to head the ball in himself.
It’s just one of those where you have to just hold your hands up. Madrid did two world class things in as many minutes and, in a 180 minute game of football where you’ve had a dozen chances to bury the game and you’ve failed to take them, you leave yourself open to two such opportunities spelling the end of your Champions League campaign.
There’s a good thread here by TJ which outlines, despite my general reluctance to lay too much blame at the feet of the players, the ways in which the game management was utter crap in the final five minutes of the game, which I think is all totally fair.
Once it went to extra time, defeat felt about as inevitable to the players as it did to me. The atmosphere, momentum and complexion of the match had switched so severely in the space of a few minutes that it had understandably crippled the players mentally. They’re human beings. Not many teams would have coped much better, if any. If we’d have done the inverse to Madrid at the Etihad, I’d have backed us to go on and win it.
Was Pep to blame? Well, anybody who knows my take on our Champions League exits under the bald fraud knows that I’m not exactly reluctant to blame Pep for such European defeats, yet it’s impossible to do so in this situation.
A lot has been made of the substitutions and, frankly, I’ve no understanding of how anybody can really take issue with the changes Pep made. De Bruyne was making a genuine case for being one of the worst players on the pitch when he was replaced by Ilkay Gundogan, who offered more in the way of control than De Bruyne did in the latter stages of the game.
Mahrez, despite scoring, had been pretty woeful throughout and Jack Grealish, again, offers a lot of control and ball retention when you’re seeing out the final quarter of an hour of a game you’re leading. He also ended up nearly scoring twice in the following ten minutes after he came on, so not exactly the worst substitution that’s ever been made.
As for everything that transpired on the pitch, it was totally out of Guardiola’s hands, as are most things. There’s nothing that Guardiola could have implemented, changed or communicated to the players within the space of time between the first and second goal which would have changed a jot.
Was the referee to blame? Maybe. We’re no strangers to terrible refereeing in the Champions League, or the season as a whole given the pitiful state the PGMOL finds itself in right now. Yet the performance of the referee on Wednesday felt as close to being corrupt as it’s possible to be through sheer ineptitude. It was genuinely like they’d plucked somebody out of the Ultras Sur and given him a whistle.
There was a hilarious reluctance to dish out any yellow cards to Casemiro despite a minimum of two very blatant yellow card offences in the first half alone, which a referee with any ounce competence would have had to send him off for if both had been spotted.
It peaked in the second half of injury time when Raheem Sterling was booked for an incredible sliding challenge which saw him cleanly win the ball, before the referee indicated only three minutes of injury time for a fifteen minute spell of football which had seen Madrid players lie on the floor for almost five of them. This was then compounded when the referee blew his whistle early, though it wouldn’t have mattered because I’m pretty sure City could have played for another ten minutes and come no closer to scoring.
Plenty of other decisions came through the game which prompted multiple non-City fans I knew to text me and comment on the referee being ridiculously bad. Did it affect the result? We’ll never know. If Casemiro had seen two yellow cards then maybe it would have. However, Fernandinho’s got away with many a yellow card offence in his time, so it is what it is.
Was God to blame? Yes. Yes he was.
Ultimately, in the words of Roberto Mancini, “deez eeza footabol”. Sometimes you’re the team scoring two late winning goals to give yourself the greatest footballing moment of your life and sometimes you’re the team having two late winning goals scored against you to kill your interest in anything football-related for a few days.
Now let’s win the Premier League please.