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Can Manchester City Finally Get Over Its Champions League Hump?

With its 2-1 win away against Paris Saint-Germain last Wednesday, Manchester City took another step toward lifting its first ever Champions League trophy. Two crucial away goals1 at the Parc des Princes mean that City has a near vise-like grip on at least a finals berth, while the FiveThirtyEight club soccer predictions model gives it a 62 percent chance of winning the whole thing. Not bad for a club that was playing in the third tier of the English soccer pyramid a little more than two decades ago.

European glory might seem like the logical denouement for a team that’s widely regarded as one of the best ever assembled in one of the world’s best leagues, but anyone who’s paid attention to City for the past half decade knows that the Champions League has been a consistent thorn in its otherwise formidable side. 

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As expected (at least by the club’s board), City has mostly dominated the English game since hiring Pep Guardiola as manager in 2016, winning two Premier League titles (and on the verge of a third), an FA Cup title and four League Cup titles. Indeed, Pep’s group has made almost a mockery of the competition in England — since winning its first league title of the Guardiola era, only Liverpool has managed to lay a glove on City — but the same can’t be said for his team against the best of the best from the rest of Europe. 

So far, all City has to show for its efforts in Europe under Guardiola is a string of early Champions League exits. From 2016-17 to 2019-20, the Cityzens didn’t manage to advance beyond the quarterfinals. They lost to (admittedly very good and exciting) underdogs Monaco in the round of 16 in 2017; they were thrashed by domestic rivals Liverpool in the quarterfinals in 2018; they lost in depressing and tantalizing fashion (thanks to some truly merciless VAR) to Tottenham Hotspur in the quarterfinals in 2019; and they lost a one-off quarterfinal to Lyon in 2020, a game that was played in an empty stadium in Portugal.

A blue background with a soccer player wearing a shirt that says “Football is for the fans” cut out against it. There’s a wordbubble taking up most of the photo saying: “The name should’ve tipped us off to the lack of imagination behind all of it. They literally just called it “Super League”!”

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At the beginning of three of those four seasons, the FiveThirtyEight model thought City was among the four most likely teams to win the Champions League. For one reason or another — Pep overthinking his tactics, probably — City never fulfilled those expectations. 

It’s funny in a sense that this could be the City team that finally gets over the Champions League hump. It isn’t its most prolific in terms of goals — 1.97 expected goals per 90 minutes, per ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, is its second-lowest mark in the Champions League under Guardiola — nor is it its most prolific in terms of chance creation, with 10.18 chances and 2.18 big chances per 90 representing the lowest and second-lowest marks under Guardiola, respectively. But the Cityzens are also making more passes into the attacking third per 90 than they have in all but one Champions League campaign under Guardiola and launching fewer crosses into the box from open play than has been typical, too. They’re probing, being (somehow) even more patient than before. 

They’re not blowing anyone out, but they haven’t had to blow anyone out either because they’ve been damn near impenetrable at the back, conceding just 0.48 expected goals per 90 minutes, by far their best mark since Guardiola took over. They’ve kept seven clean sheets and haven’t conceded more than one goal in any of their 11 Champions League games. As a result, they’ve won 10 and drawn one. 

Man City is defending the best it has under Pep

Record, goals per 90 minutes and expected goals per 90 minutes in Champions League play for Manchester City under manager Pep Guardiola

Season Games Record For Against For Against
2020-21 11 10-1-0 2.09 0.36 1.97 0.48
2019-20 9 6-2-1 2.33 1.00 2.77 0.87
2018-19 10 7-1-2 3.00 1.20 2.35 1.00
2017-18 10 6-0-4 2.00 1.20 1.68 1.01
2016-17 10 5-3-2 2.40 1.60 2.12 1.38

Through the first leg of the 2020-21 semifinal.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

When Manchester City hired Guardiola, it did so with one goal in mind: winning the Champions League. The Cityzens had already reestablished themselves as domestic juggernauts2 before the arrival of the Catalan — they won the Premier League in 2011-12 and 2013-14 under the stewardship of Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pelligrini, respectively — but they kept falling short against Europe’s best teams in club soccer’s preeminent competition. And though Guardiola failed to guide Bayern Munich to Champions League glory in his three-year tenure as manager of the dominant German club, he won the title twice while at the helm of Barcelona.

City’s board knew that hiring Guardiola would almost certainly translate into consistent domestic success — he won six league titles in the seven seasons he spent between Barcelona and Bayern. But its real ambition lay on the continent, and Pep had proved before that he was capable of delivering the goods. 

The goods are now close enough to touch. After a shaky opening half-hour against PSG, during which the Parisians took a 1-0 lead and Kylian Mbappé and Neymar looked as though they were capable of scoring every time they touched the ball, City settled into the game. 

In Guardiola’s press conference before the first leg, he acknowledged how difficult it is to get to the latter stages of any knockout tournament. He said that his players, many of whom had never played in a Champions League semifinal, were ready for the task at hand, and he admitted that keeping a team with PSG’s talent quiet for 90 minutes would be next to impossible. (Nightmares of Mbappé and Neymar terrorizing City’s high defensive line might have even kept him up at night.) He was right about the latter, and the former wasn’t the case during the first half. No matter, though — Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez eventually asserted themselves, and City eventually got its goal. Then it got another. And now it has a stranglehold on the tie heading back to its home patch in Manchester — though against Mbappé and Neymar, it’s not a done deal. 

In previous years, City’s problem was that it had a tendency to be leaky, especially in big games. (See: Monaco in 2017, Liverpool in 2018 and Lyon a year ago.) Those leaks have all been patched, and City is just 180 minutes away from the greatest achievement in club history. 

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  1. In the event of a tie, away goals count for more in two-legged Champions League knockout series.

  2. City experienced a long stretch of mediocrity after winning the league title in 1968, spending much of the 1980s and 1990s bouncing between the first, second and third tiers of the pyramid.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.