Pep Guardiola left to reflect on his fatal flaw with a ruined quadruple dream | Manchester city

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AAnd so the quadruple remains out of reach for another season. Maybe Pep Guardiola is right to banish talking about it: when the goals are set so high, even an extraordinary season could look like a failure. And so it persists, always on the verge of perception, as the double did for Liverpool for much of the ’70s and’ 80s, something that often feels within their reach and continues to elude them.

For a long time, the double was rare enough to be an almost mystical quest. Growing up in the ’80s, the teams that made it felt vaguely from another world, which was talked about in a hushed and respectful tone: Preston 1889, Aston Villa 1897, Tottenham 1961, Arsenal 1971 and finally, Liverpool 1986. Then came the Premier League and a redistribution of resources, and suddenly it lost its luster. There have been seven doubles over the past three decades, and an inflationary effect which means now only trebles are truly memorable: Manchester United in the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League in 1999 and Manchester City’s domestic variant of Premier League, FA Cup and Coupe de la Ligue in 2019.

As the wealthy continue to accumulate resources and football’s financial stratification becomes increasingly severe, a quadruple seems almost inevitable at some point – the most likely obstacle to preventing it from happening being the abolition of the Coupe de la Ligue rather than the limitations of the super-clubs.

Yet no matter how uncomfortable dominating a small elite may be, a quadruple would be a remarkable achievement; even what City have already done this season is extraordinary. The league is pretty much secure; they play a sick Tottenham, probably without Harry Kane, in the League Cup final next Sunday; they have Paris Saint-Germain in the semi-final of the Champions League; and they reached the semi-final of the FA Cup. It was maybe 10 games of a clean sweep. No side ever came close.

Even that statistic suggests how difficult a quadruple is. In the league, there are plenty of second chances (as City have shown this season, having recovered from their worst start in 12 years), but in knockout competition all it takes is an unfortunate rebound from the ball, a bad refereeing decision, once. day, and the work of a season is finished. The quadruple is a ruthless dream.

Quick guide

Football fans return to Wembley

Spectacle

Leicester v Southampton
Four thousand spectators will attend the Southampton v Leicester FA Cup semi-final on Sunday, all socially behind in groups of two. It will be the first time in 2021 that supporters will be allowed to watch a football match in this country, as part of a test event aimed at “managing and mitigating the risk of transmission”.

The tickets were made available to Brent Council, NHS and caregivers, teachers and local residents. All participants must return at least one negative lateral flow Covid-19 test within 24 hours of the match and must take a home PCR test after the event. Saturday’s semi-final between Chelsea and Manchester City remains behind closed doors.

Carabao Cup Final

The capacity for next Sunday’s game doubles to 8,000 – 4,000 as above, plus 2,000 Tottenham and Manchester City fans, who must sign consent forms and pass a number of tests. Fans under the age of 18 cannot attend, nor are fans in clinically vulnerable categories. Level Playing Field – a charity that advocates for equal access for fans with disabilities – called the decision “very disappointing.”

The FA Cup final and beyond

21,000 fans are expected to attend the FA Cup final on May 15, with all pitches open to at least 25% capacity by May 17. England’s Euro 2020 group matches at Wembley will feature 22,500 supporters, with the aim of doubling that figure to 45,000 for the semi-finals and the final. The Premier League is hoping to have up to 10,000 home fans in the final two rounds of play this season. The government’s current roadmap lifts all mixing restrictions on June 21.

Photograph: Nick Potts / PA

But the question for City is whether it was just a day off or whether Saturday’s loss to Chelsea is evidence of a more lingering problem. It might have been only 1-0, but it was a complete 1-0. City were flat, devoid of creativity and, perhaps most unsettlingly for Guardiola, seemed susceptible to that most characteristic flaw: the pace of running on the balls played behind them.

Eight changes may just be too many. Guardiola’s complaints that he had only had two and a half days to prepare after Wednesday’s victory in Dortmund will not have generated much sympathy: In fighting on multiple fronts, juggling resources is an essential skill and few clubs have more resources than City It, however, means fielding a front row of three players – Ferran Torres, Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling – all of whom are in a bad mood.

But it was less the lack of offensive spark and more the nature of the threat Chelsea posed that seemed significant. If Ilkay Gündogan had started it could have been different; Fernandinho struggled the whole game with Mason Mount. But the only big vulnerability of all of Guardiola’s teams has been having teams that are good enough to play or get around the press and free the runners in the space behind the defense.

Lionel Messi scores as Barcelona see Guardiola's Bayern Munich in 2015.
Lionel Messi scores as Barcelona see Guardiola’s Bayern Munich in 2015. Photograph: Paul Hanna / Reuters

Few opponents are good enough to do this, which creates the apparent paradox of teams that concede very few goals in a season but appear defensively fragile in bigger games. This is what led to the collapse of Barcelona against Bayern, Bayern against Barcelona and Real Madrid and City against Monaco and Liverpool. This is why Guardiola Town have such a strangely poor record against Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s counterattack at Manchester United.

And, of course, that’s why Guardiola seems to complicate his caps in Europe’s biggest games so often, changing systems to counter the threat of teams who might be able to expose this problem. Last season, City lost to Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-finals in similar circumstances to Saturday, defeats by an opponent with a clear plan to plan on the clock, especially in the inner left channel. Just under a month later, apparently looking to avoid something similar against Lyon in the Champions League, Guardiola opted for an unknown three-fullback.

The fascination now, with Saturday’s loss coming so soon after the league loss to a Leeds counterattack, is what Guardiola does in 10 days when City meet PSG in the Champions League semi-final . Given how brilliantly the trio of Kylian Mbappé, Neymar and Ángel Di María (the architect of Madrid’s devastating victory over their Bayern in 2014) counterattacked Bayern, can Guardiola afford not to take specific action?

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Defeats happen even to the best teams. It could be a failure and nothing more. There were plenty of explanations to be found for those who wanted to watch. But the characteristic nature of defeat could only cause concern. One got the impression that Guardiola’s entire career had become a struggle with the only flaw of an otherwise extremely effective method.

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