Making a Champions League Final is no easy task. Returning after suffering defeat on the biggest stage, arguably the most demoralizing possible loss in club football, is even more difficult. Since 1999-2000, just three beaten finalists have made the final again the following season, evidencing that Liverpool’s redemption in 2018-19 was the exception, not the rule.
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Bayern Munich similarly won the title a year after a shock final defeat to Chelsea on home soil in Munich in 2012 after being massive favorites, a historical example which Manchester City supporters can look to with optimism. Not all of these stories have fairytale endings, however. Valencia was the first of these clubs to return the following season and were promptly beaten once again, this time on penalties by Bayern in 2000.
Although it was not in consecutive seasons, Atlético Madrid had their hearts ripped from their chest twice in three European finals by their arch-rival Real Madrid, the first coming with a stoppage time equalizer before conceding three in extra time, the second on penalties in 2016. All of this proves the greatest point about the Champions League: above all, it is a cruel competition, one that is ruthless. If you are handed a chance on club football’s biggest stage, you better take it, as second chances are few and far between.
For all of the work that has gone into City, the largest sporting project ever attempted on English soil, it took 13 years to even reach this point once. City blew their chance, and supporters will live with that pain until the club finds its way back into the final. History is against City, but if any team is capable of being the fourth losing finalist this century to get back, it very well could be the Sky Blues.
City’s summer will be dominated by transfer talk, primarily about the club’s new striker. Admittedly, this will be a huge moment for the direction of the club moving forward, but even if City manage to bring in Erling Haaland or Harry Kane, this signing does not come with a guarantee of returning to the final. Quality or depth of squad has never been the issue: City have arguably had English and world football’s deepest and most talented squad on paper for the last few seasons. Adding another player will not instantly make City unstoppable.
First, City must maintain the steel that got them to this season’s final. In the tense moments, leaders such as Rúben Dias and Kevin De Bruyne will need to give this team the spine to beat some of Europe’s best. For years, City struggled at times with leadership and responding to adversity, but City rarely looked panicked this season as they had in the past. Next, the team must find a way to score against low blocks.
This is the predominant manner of success against Pep Guardiola’s teams. Thomas Tuchel stuck to his guns, organized his defense, and absolutely ran through some of Europe’s best coaches in Diego Simeone, Zinedine Zidane, and Guardiola. Perhaps a true number nine will be the catalyst City need to begin to stop teams such as Chelsea, but tactically, more needs to be done.
Finally, Guardiola must admit his mistakes and learn his lesson. Despite changing the tactics against Tottenham, Lyon, and now Chelsea, which directly resulted in shock defeats, he continues to make the same error. I believe this comes from a place of ego, which perhaps he has earned as the world’s greatest coach, but even Pep must take a step back and recognize that trying to “out-genius” the opposition takes the focus off of the players and onto his tactics, and it has directly caused City to lose to inferior teams.
City have better players than the teams that have eliminated them, but their manager cannot continue to get in the way if City are to return and redeem themselves on the biggest stage. Guardiola is undoubtedly one of the greatest footballing minds of all time, and he has proven time and time again that he can innovate. Continuing to do it in the biggest moments to prove a point, even when it has a history of backfiring against this team, however, could be the greatest danger City will face. If all of these ingredients come together, maybe, just maybe, City can defy the odds and return to club football’s biggest match.