Pep Guardiola knows only Champions League heartbreak at Manchester City but this was a fresh twist on an old plot-line. When Kevin De Bruyne found an equaliser for 1-1 midway through the second-half. City finally looked primed to make their class tell against Lyon.
Yet when Rudi Garcia introduced Moussa Dembélé from the substitutes’ bench, the night was about to get away from the Guardiola and his players. Dembélé’s first goal seemed to unfold in slow motion, after Houssem Aouar played a throughball for Karl Toko Ekambi, who was plainly offside. Ekambi, though, stepped over the ball and there was Dembélé, running from deep, to beat Ederson.
City had been below their usual standards and yet an opportunity for salvation beckoned when Gabriel Jesus crossed from the right and Raheem Sterling, who had been one of the team’s better players, addressed a tap-in from close-range. Incredibly, he blazed his shot high. It was one of the misses of the season and the repercussions were laid bare shortly afterwards when Ederson spilled a tame shot from Aouar and Dembélé gobbled up the rebound.
It is now four misses in this competition for Guardiola, this being City’s third straight quarter-final elimination, following on from one in the last 16 and, when the dust settles, there will be only pain; the acknowledgement that this was a golden chance spurned. Lyon’s joy knew no limits.
City had to have heard the knock of opportunity at kick-off time. Fortified by their outplaying of Real Madrid in both legs of the last 16, their confidence was high and Lyon’s underdog status had been pronounced.
What a strange season it has been for Les Gones. They removed Sylvinho as the manager in October and it is fair to say that when Rudi Garcia replaced him, it was hardly to universal acclaim. His ex-Marseilles status saw to that. Garcia’s team finished seventh in the Covid-19 curtailed Ligue 1 campaign and fan unrest has bubbled at regular intervals.
Yet the Champions League has provided the highlights, most obviously the away goals victory over Juventus in the last 16. They also took four points from RB Leipzig at the group phase. As Guardiola had stressed, City dare not underestimate them in a one-off tie.
Garcia’s 3-5-2 system is designed to be compact but Lyon showed themselves to be more than capable of intricate movement, of fizzing the ball about with no little slickness. Houssem Aouar was the symbol of their easy balance. How they craved a break, something to hold on to and, when they got it midway through the first half, nobody could say that it had not been advertised.
Fernando Marçal had blasted at Ederson from outside the area after a half-cleared corner and Léo Dubois missed a cut-back when well-placed before Marçal sparked the breakthrough with a ball over the top for Karl Toko Ekambi to chase.
Ederson, typically, raced off his line to address the danger and, when Eric Garcia tackled back, the ball broke for Maxwel Cornet and the goalkeeper was exposed. Cornet knew what he had to do – bend the ball for the near corner from distance, starting it outside the post to take out the back-pedalling Ederson. He did so perfectly and, after a VAR check for offside against Ekambi proved negative, Lyon felt their hopes surge.
There had been the familiar game for City watchers of second-guessing and then deciphering Guardiola’s starting tactics. Garcia was the surprise selection and that he began in the middle of a back three raised even more eyebrows. City made inroads up the inside left channel in the first-half, with Joâo Cancelo linking with Raheem Sterling; the England winger’s darting runs were a problem for Lyon. Guardiola’s team worked up a head of steam before the interval, with Sterling cutting back for Rodri who worked Anthony Lopes and Sterling himself being denied by a saving Cornet challenge after a Kevin De Bruyne pass.
At the outset, Lyon had scrambled clear after Sterling got in behind them to centre and there was also the moment on 31 minutes when Lopes flapped at a Cancelo cross before redeeming himself. City knew that they had to do more in the second period.
City can never have imagined playing a Champions League quarter-final in such circumstances – a cavernous stadium empty bar the small number of staff members and matchday personnel. It was a national holiday in Portugal to celebrate the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and so Lisbon city centre was also eerily quiet. Unusual did not begin to cover it.
All the pressure was on City and not only because Kyle Walker had said beforehand that this was the trophy he most wanted – and he was speaking on behalf of the ”whole squad” At 1-0, Lyon could keep their shape and look to strike on the counter – Ekambi’s pace and Memphis Depay’s trickery were weapons – and it came to feel as though Guardiola had to change things. Did he over-think his initial approach, with Rodri sitting in front of the defence and Ilkay Gündogan given license to roam? The service to Gabriel Jesus was poor.
Guardiola made a move on 55 minutes, introducing Riyad Mahrez for Fernandinho and switching to 4-2-3-1, which gave De Bruyne the No 10 role. He would grow in influence. There were a couple of free-kick sighters and a driving run which ended with Denayer blocking his shot. Lyon could not keep him out.
City’s equaliser was all about Sterling’s trickery. He took a pass from Mahrez and jinked inside Jason Denayer on the byline, leaving the defender for dead. And, when he cut back, De Bruyne made the finish look easy.