Football

Pep's gamble fails

Sacrificing Sterling for Guendogan restricts his own attacking options

Vulnerability has finally hit home for Manchester City's footballing immortals.

Completing a season-long procession to the EPL title suddenly no longer appears such a formality on the back of yesterday morning's (Singapore time) 3-0 defeat by Liverpool.

Regularly susceptible in defence and profligate in attack, Pep Guardiola's side were virtually unrecognisable in an abject first leg of their Champions League quarter-final.

Until now, City had exuded an authority destined to place them on a pantheon of greatness.

Their swashbuckling style carried echoes of Guardiola's all-conquering Barcelona sides.

One hostile pre-match welcome and a first-half blitz by their hosts later, however, they are now being made to answer questions about their true credentials at the highest level.

Maybe it was the nature of their arrival at Anfield which unsettled, and even spooked, the English champions-elect into becoming the architects of their own downfall.

Amid the pyrotechnics and flying missiles, Guardiola attempted to exercise caution on the pitch.

Deploying Ilkay Guendogan on the right-hand side of midfield in efforts to contain the Reds' attacking trident inadvertently restricted his own game plan, with City severely lacking both the width and attacking threat regularly offered by a sacrificed Raheem Sterling.

When the gamble backfired, Guardiola made the rare misstep of publicly pointing the finger of blame directly at Guendogan. History suggests that he should have known far better.

Shoehorning the Germany international alongside David Silva, Fernandinho and Kevin de Bruyne for the first time this term was a move which was unlikely to pay dividends given that the quartet had won only one of their previous five league games together last season.

That his players also failed to register a solitary shot on target for the first time since their 2016 League Cup exit to Manchester United exposed both an inability to handle the intensity of the occasion against Juergen Klopp's side as well as their limited capabilities.

Leroy Sane had enjoyed the freedom of Merseyside during last weekend's win over Everton yet found himself comfortably shackled by Trent Alexander-Arnold, still relatively inexperienced in comparison, as the visitors' sole attacking outlet.

Regularly conceding possession is a hallmark largely unseen in the winger's repertoire and increasingly less so in City overall, but became alarmingly commonplace.

Only in the second half, with the damage inflicted, did Guardiola finally attempt to remedy the situation.

Whether it was complacency or excessive confidence behind the Catalan's thought process, he knows that the crowning glory of a title coronation against United this weekend hinges on how his side respond to their first and potentially most crushing of setbacks.

Exiting the last eight of Europe's elite club competition without putting up a fight threatens to be the edict from a week-long period which promised so much for City but could deliver nothing.

Guardiola's trophy-laden coaching career was founded on principles of adversity which went on to serve him in good stead at the highest level of the game during Barcelona and Bayern Munich's strangleholds on their country's respective leagues.

That fortitude will need to be ingrained in his current employers, both on Sunday morning and in the ensuing return leg with Liverpool a matter of days later, if they are to see through their current fairytale narrative until the end, instead of reverting to the "typical City" rhetoric.

Unfortunately it is an issue which throwing money cannot readily fix, not now at least.

npsports@sph.com.sg

Football