Manchester City are stuck in a Groundhog Day of Champions League defensive disappointments under Pep Guardiola. For the generation’s pre-eminent manager, hired to lead the club to its inaugural triumph, fixing this achilles heel has been a Sisyphean challenge he hopes to finally overcome at a seventh attempt.
After Leipzig were eviscerated 7-0 in City’s last outing in the competition, this was high on the mind of a manager who referred to a number of the reverses suffered due to his vulnerable rearguard. The victory was decorated by Erling Haaland scoring five yet Guardiola demurred when asked if the Norwegian’s goals are what City missed in the previous disappointments dealt them by Monaco, Liverpool, Tottenham, Lyon, Chelsea and Real Madrid.
“I don’t think so,” Guardiola said. “The reason why is that we concede a lot of goals. We scored three goals here against Real Madrid last year, six against Monaco , four against Tottenham . A lot of time we were out because we conceded a lot. Right now these guys defend really well. And we had Sergio Agüero before Haaland with this instinct to score.”
A potted history of each knockout would be a medley of misdemeanours in front of the City goal. Guardiola’s reference to “right now” is telling from a manager who is worried his rearguard will offer yet another repeat of wilting in the white heat of a sudden-death tie.
Bayern’s coach, Thomas Tuchel, who plotted City’s greatest blow – Chelsea’s triumph in the 2021 final – is sure to instruct his side to again try to beat their opponent’s high line as Kai Havertz did when running in behind to score the winner in Porto. On that day Rúben Dias and John Stones were in central defence, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Kyle Walker the full-backs. The latter apart, a lack of pace was costly and this weakness has been a motif of City’s rearguard since Guardiola’s arrival.
On Tuesday Tuchel can field an attack-squadron of speedsters such as Leroy Sané, Sadio Mané, Serge Gnabry and Jamal Musiala plus, from full-back, Alphonso Davies. The sluggish Dias and Stones should again be in Guardiola’s backline with Manuel Akanji and Nathan Aké. Walker may not be as he is a defender non grata when the manager wishes to play his full-back-into-midfield system, Guardiola declaring last week that, in essence, the England man is not technically gifted enough to execute the role.
Yet when the above Bayern players were named alongside their potency, Dias was defiant. “We have some names as well,” he says. “We have Kyle Walker, Manuel, Nathan, me, Aymeric Laporte, Stones, so we also have our names. We will see.”
On Monday Guardiola, unsolicited, cited how his backline troubles him in Europe’s blue riband tournament. “We have always scored goals. That was not the problem. We were maybe not solid in defence,” he said.
A gauge of Guardiola’s belief in his men to down Bayern via his preferred gameplan will be found when his XI for the opening leg drops. Will there be a recall for Walker and the turbo-fuelled heels Guardiola stated would make him the “fastest in the room at 60”. Selecting Walker would be a sign his coach has turned to pragmatism to shore up the leaks and banish the ghosts of Champions League failures past. Asked if this is a match for the 32-year-old’s fleet-footedness, Guardiola says: “Yeah, maybe. We will see.”
Domestically, the issue remains. Ten days ago Liverpool were routed 4-1 but not before Mohamed Salah opened the scoring in a back-to-front raid that featured the ball being pinged from Trent Alexander-Arnold to Diogo Jota, whose pace took him in on Ederson’s goal, the Portuguese holding off Akanji and teeing up the Egyptian who was unmarked and smashed home.
It was not the only time Liverpool punched holes in City this way. Tuchel will surely remember his glorious day in May of two years ago, place it alongside City’s other Champions League eliminations, and instruct a side he has led in three matches of a nascent tenure to get at England’s champions via the same method.
Asked if City’s previous downfalls in continental competition were human error and how to solve this versus Bayern, Guardiola is quick to expunge any negativity that might be picked up by his charges.
“Attack better, defend what you have to defend,” he said. “The fact that we conceded the goals doesn’t mean it will happen on Tuesday. Scoring goals I think was not a big problem – we score goals but of course we have to defend well, here and in Germany.
“They have a lot of weapons and threats: the speed and quality they have, the mentality. It is a good test for us. Always, when I talk about Bayern, it is about how we behave. In these games we compete against ourselves. The moment we start a game we have to perform our best. Of course the opponent is there but we have every one, in every department, focused on what we are doing and what we have to do.”