Far from elevating Manchester City to European elite status, the team has regressed in Pep Guardiola’s first season in charge. Guardiola has time to turn it around. Many of his players won’t. These will be anxious days for aging members of the City squad who will sense the looming end of careers with a club they helped to transform.
Approaching the end of the first decade under Abu Dhabi ownership, City is in need of another large-scale refresh in the dressing room. It has the coach, certainly the finest of his generation, now Guardiola needs the squad to deliver on his vision _ starting at the back.
The frailties in City’s defense were badly exposed on Wednesday when Monaco’s 3-1 victory carried the French leader into the Champions League quarterfinals.
“It is a massive disappointment,” right back Bacary Sagna said. “We forgot to play in the first half, we forgot to fight as a team, defend as a team, and press as a team. We gave them too much respect and … we put ourselves in danger.”
Sagna is one of two defenders to start in Monaco who is in his 30s and out of contract at the end of the season. It’s the same situation for Pablo Zabaleta, who remained on the bench as City’s pursuit of a first European Cup ended in the round of 16.
City is also leaking too many goals with Guardiola’s biggest gamble signing former Barcelona goalkeeper Claudio Bravo and sending Joe Hart on loan to Italy backfiring.
The defense shouldn’t bear the brunt of the blame, since it was Guardiola who ordered the attacking approach in Monaco where City had a 5-3 lead to protect from the first leg while facing one of the most formidable attacks in France.
“We changed the system and it worked quite well, we managed to create more chances,” Sagna said, “but unfortunately we didn’t score (enough).”
And that casts further doubt on the future of Sergio Aguero. The striker lost his place after 19-year-old Gabriel Jesus burst into the team with a flurry of goals two months ago.
Aguero, whose goals clinched City’s first Premier League title in 2012, regained his place in the starting lineup only in February when Gabriel Jesus sustained a likely season-ending injury.
The only prospect of silverware for Guardiola is in the FA Cup where City faces Arsenal in the semifinals. The Premier League title bid faded long ago, falling off the pace after the team was the season’s early front-runner.
Liverpool also expected to be challenging for the title, not slugging it out with City just to stay in the top four Champions League places.
Liverpool hosts City on Sunday in fourth place, with Guardiola’s City just a point ahead in third.
“I expect a reaction from the team,” Sagna said. “I expect more desire, to show more passion. We did show passion in the second half (in Monaco) but it is not enough. We have to recover because it was quite a difficult game and then we have to think about Liverpool.”
Don’t discount Arsenal from forcing either Liverpool or City from the Premier League’s top four. Arsenal is demoralized, facing uncertainty over Arsene Wenger’s future, and five points behind Liverpool but it does have two games in hand.
Chelsea is coasting to the title and could go 13 points clear of Tottenham by beating Stoke on Saturday, with the second-placed London club not in action until Sunday against Southampton.