It’s been 11 years since Pep Guardiola won the Champions League. Manager for 10 of the following seasons, last year’s loss to Chelsea was his only last appearance in the past decade.
Yet, after losing to Thomas Tuchel, Man City were determined that this year would finally be their year in Europe. That having lost last season, they could follow in liverpoolturning such a low into European Cup glory 12 months later.
Beating Real Madrid 4-3 at the Etihad in the semi-final first leg, City had one foot in the final on 28 May. When Riyad Mahrez opened the scoring at the Bernabeu in the second leg just over 15 minutes from time, fans reportedly had their eye on flights and hotels for Paris.
As the clock hit the 90th minute in Spain, Man City were there and Guardiola was about to have another chance to bring the Champions League back to the Etihad. After leading the game from Kevin De Bruyne’s second-minute opener in the first leg, and missing a plethora of home and away chances that would have long since sealed their trip to Paris, it wasn’t less than they deserved.
But replacement Rodrygo had other ideas. The Brazilian fended off Karim Benzema’s reduction from close range in the final minute with Real’s first-ever shot on target, before scoring again 90 seconds later to force extra time as he headed home Marco Asensio’s kick on the center of Dani Carvajal.
Having had that Champions League final stolen from the palm of their hand, Man City were stunned. When Benzema scored a 95th-minute penalty to send Real Madrid top on aggregate for the first time, one of the Champions League’s most sensational collapses was over.
From then on the outcome was certain, with City never seeming to find a way to turn back the clock, and their players were in shock at the final whistle as their European dreams came to a premature end once again.
Guardiola had sent Ilkay Gundogan and Oleksandr Zinchenko for Kyle Walker and De Bruyne moments before Mahrez’s opener, with them already leading on aggregate and closing in on back-to-back final appearances. Jack Grealish and Fernandinho then replaced Gabriel Jesus and the Algerian as City looked to see the game through to the final whistle and clinch their place in Paris.
Yet as soon as Rodrygo leveled the scores on the night, Guardiola’s men looked exhausted. They needed an experienced leader to take his teammates and carry them through, but they were left with a spineless group staring at each other, both unable and unwilling to take responsibility. Oh for the days of Vincent Kompany.
To add extra salt to those Man City injuries, they once boasted of another player’s talents that they could have really benefited from in possession at the Bernabeu, only to lose him on a free transfer to Liverpool.
Eyebrows were raised in the Reds fan base in the summer of 2015 when the Reds signed a 29-year-old James Milner to essentially replace the talismanic captain Steven Gerard in midfield, making him the club’s biggest earner, handing him the esteemed number seven shirt and appointing him vice-captain.
But the veteran quickly eradicated those fears and although at 36 he may not be getting the minutes on the pitch he once wanted, he remains one of the most in-form players in the Premier League. and one of Jurgen Kloppthe most trusted lieutenants.
Signed by former director Brendan Rodgers, the Northern Irishman wanted to add Premier League winning experience to his squad, having watched Liverpool crumble and miss out on the Premier League title in 2013/14. And with Milner a two-time Premier League winner, FSG broke away from their traditional transfer attributes to land the midfielder.
Since then, slowly approaching 300 appearances in seven seasons at Anfield, he has helped the Reds win the Premier League, Champions League, FIFA Club World Cup, European Super Cup and Cup. of the League, while playing a vital, if admittedly sometimes unheralded role as Liverpool chase an unprecedented four-fold.
Speaking after Milner’s man of the match performance in the Reds’ 1-0 win over Newcastle United last weekend, Klopp insisted that none of his side’s successes in recent seasons would not have been possible without their vice-captain.
“Outstanding. Milly is Milly. He’s incredibly important to us,” the German told reporters at St. James’ Park. “People think we’re talking about dressing room and leadership.
“Yes, it’s helpful, it’s very helpful, especially with a manager who isn’t a native speaker. But on the pitch too, he had a great game… The boys were on fire. I really liked the game and James was an integral part of it.
“It would be interesting to watch Luka Modric. Isn’t he 36 too? Obviously a good generation. It’s hard to be in better shape than Milly, he’s a role model.
“I told him that nothing we’ve achieved in the last few years would have happened without James Milner. Easy as that. Whether he’s on the pitch or not.
“He stands out in a way that few people can stand out. He educated us all.
With such a performance prompting fresh calls for the midfielder to sign a new contract, Milner once again demonstrated such abilities when Liverpool were on the verge of collapsing in the Champions League semi-finals on Tuesday night . Leading 2-0 after the first leg against Villarreal, the Reds had seen the La Liga side level the aggregate after a dismal 45 minutes from Klopp’s men.
Supporters have called for the introduction of the captain Jordan Henderson, another player who possesses those exact attributes that City would lack 24 hours later, but Klopp turned things around with the half-time introduction of Luis Diaz. Goals from Fabinho, the Colombian and Sadio Mane would see the Reds turn the game around to lead 3-2 on the night and 5-2 on aggregate.
And that’s when the Liverpool boss decided to introduce his captain and vice-captain, his voices on the pitch, trusting the pair to help see the game through and avoid another clash. There’s a reason Klopp calls his team ‘monsters of mentality’ with Henderson and Milner both at the heart of that never say die mentality.
When the going gets tough, the tough get going. They dig in and make sure Liverpool step up when it matters most, continuing to use their experience to run games to perfection. Compare to Guardiola City’s side and it’s clear it’s not just a striker they lack, with Fernandinho’s impending summer exit only reiterating their lost leadership of recent years.
Never a first-team regular at Man City despite joining them for £26million in 2010, Milner left the Etihad in search of becoming something more elsewhere. Working alongside Klopp, he achieved just that at Liverpool and proved to be exactly what his former club lacks as their European failures continue.