Pep Guardiola's Manchester City Finally Clears the Quarterfinal Hurdle

Manchester City has reached the Champions League semifinals under Pep Guardiola for the first time, though it wasn't without another scare.
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For Manchester City, the quadruple is still on and, significantly, a neurosis has been laid to rest.

Wednesday's second leg of the Champions League quarterfinals, for a time, provided another nervous occasion for Man City, but in the end it prevailed, beating Borussia Dortmund 2–1 on the night and 4–2 on aggregate to reach its first Champions League semifinal since 2016, and its first under Pep Guardiola. 

Guardiola, for whom this will also be a first semifinal in five years, has become a specialist in unexpected Champions League exits, and for a time on Wednesday it looked like he might suffer another one. There was certainly a time toward the end of the first half when he felt the tension. Guardiola, who increasingly sits quietly on the bench during games, patrolled the edge of his technical area, anxiety radiating from his twitchy body language. A second-half Riyad Mahrez penalty followed by a crisp shot from Phil Foden, though, turned the game to set up a semifinal against Paris Saint-Germain, a battle of the sovereign wealth of Abu Dhabi and Qatar.

Frequently, particularly recently, Guardiola has seemed his own worst enemy, his determination to avert defeat inviting it in as he complicated matters by selecting an unfamiliar team. He played Ilkay Gundogan on the left against Liverpool in 2018, and he played two holding midfielders and a back three against Lyon last season, for example. There was none of that here, with Oleksandr Zinchenko’s inclusion ahead of Joao Cancelo the only change from the first leg. This was an entirely orthodox lineup, yet familiar patterns soon began to repeat.

City began well, holding possession and keeping Dortmund at arm’s length. But it was as though knowing 0-0 was enough that it lacked a little cutting edge. There was no thrust and no danger and suddenly, with its first attack, after quarter of an hour, Dortmund took the lead. Erling Haaland, who had been quiet in the first leg and was only fleetingly involved in the second, held the ball up and laid it back to Mahmoud Dahoud. His shot was blocked, but it fell to Jude Bellingham, who dug the ball out from between his feet and was able to place his shot well enough that Ederson’s dive only helped the ball into the top corner. The 17-year-old Bellingham became the youngest English Champions League goalscorer, while only Bojan Krkic (Barcelona, 2008) has scored a goal in the knockout stage at a younger age.

Past trauma was almost visibly awakened. Kevin De Bruyne did slam a snap-shot against the underside of the bar, but before the break there was also a lot of sideways passing and a lot of flustered efforts. City is a team used to dominating, one that rarely finds itself under pressure and tends not to react well when it is. Of the previous 10 games when it had been behind at halftime, it had drawn two and lost eight. Even more striking, in the last 26 years in Premier League away games, City has been behind at halftime 105 times and has won only once, losing 91.

But the nerves were settled eight minutes into the second half as Emre Can, entirely needlessly, conceded a penalty. The ball did glance off Can’s head before striking his arm, which led to a lengthy VAR delay, but the decision was presumably that the arm was in such an unnatural position, stretched so far from the body, that the deflection off the head was not relevant. Mahrez duly converted, restoring the aggregate lead and giving City an away goal to match Dortmund's from the first leg.

City was relentless, its passing more purposeful in the second half, Dortmund’s breaks less and less frequent and less and less threatening. As the home side, dragged this way and that, tired, a second concession became inevitable. It was Foden, who had been exceptional across the two legs, who got it, receiving after a short corner and slapping the ball in via the side of the post.

In the end, City was comfortable enough, and had it not been for the memory of past failures, there may not even have been much sense of jeopardy. But the best way of overcoming fear, perhaps, is to face it head on and having gotten over this psychological hurdle, the next stage is another team that has developed a reputation for underachievement.

PSG should provide a sterner test than the side fifth in the Bundesliga, but there was a sense in which City’s principle opponent on Wednesday was as much itself as it was Dortmund.

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