That Manchester City will face Borussia Dortmund in the quarter-final of this season’s Champions League is no longer news. What may be news is that many think City are already in the semis. Not much credit has been given to an opponent parading the top scorer in the competition; Erling Haaland.
The 20-year-old has hit 21 goals in 21 German Bundesliga games this term and 10 in just six Champions League outings. Consequently, he is the top scorer in a competition that features a certain Bayern Munich as well as Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City.
The last thing Man City needs at this point in the competition is to contend with a beast in front of goal whose hobby it is to ridicule defenders and pump in net busters. It is easy to reason that this is not the same City defence of the last few seasons.
But this goes beyond just a question of Haaland vs in-form Dias and Stones. It is as much a matter of a team’s character as that of the players. Speaking of the players, the two have never gone past this stage of the competition in their young careers.
As for the team, Manchester City have built a reputation in the Champions League in recent times. The Blues tend to choke when it matters most. The players get jittery and lose their cutting edge. The team then becomes vulnerable suddenly opening the back door to the opponent.
Monaco exploited it. So did Liverpool, Tottenham and more recently Lyon. These were nights that made some players cult heroes for their clubs. First Kylian Mbappe announced himself to the world. Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino all scored against the Blues over two legs.
In 2019, Son Heung-min became Tottenham’s very own Lionel Messi scoring a hat-trick over both legs. Last year, Lyon’s Moussa Dembele showed he could also imitate Cristiano Ronaldo with two goals in 12 minutes after joining the fray in the 75th minute to dump out the Cityzens with a shock 3-1 defeat.
Except for the return leg against Tottenham, Raheem Sterling usually goes missing in those games. For example, in the return fixture against Monaco in 2017, he was the worst player on the pitch. Whoscored rated him 5.8 out of 10, even less than Willy Caballero in the City goal who conceded three on the night.
In hindsight, the result is not surprising now considering that the back four was made up of Bacary Sagna, John Stones, Aleksandar Kolarov and Gael Clichy. The former Arsenal full-backs had already gone past their prime. Same with Kolarov who was also played out of position. Stones was still finding his feet in the City team.
That said, four consecutive years under Pep Guardiola with the same results suggest the issue runs deeper. It is psychological, something some players have admitted to in the past. Case in point, Ilkay Gundogan.
So Haaland is definitely dangerous. But the biggest issue City face is that of mentality. It has a lot to do with success at the biggest stage. Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool were not called mentality monsters in the last two years for nothing.
Guardiola has been accused of over-thinking things at this stage of the competition perhaps due to the weight of expectations. And that has been his downfall since leaving Barcelona. It has been four years of “failure” at City. Hopefully, he has learnt his lessons now and will make the necessary correction against Dortmund.