Man City double-treble dream is over, but ‘worst week of season’ is not

MANCHESTER, England — Pep Guardiola insisted he had “no regrets” after watching Real Madrid knock his Manchester City side out of the Champions League on penalties on Wednesday, but the thought of what might have been should take a while to get over.

There were points during the quarterfinal second leg at the Etihad Stadium, with Real Madrid camped in their own penalty area, when it seemed debatable that they would cross the halfway line again, let alone progress to the semifinals. But City’s missed chances meant the match ended 1-1 after extra time, after a pulsating 3-3 draw in the first leg. That led to a penalty shootout, and from there anything can happen.

Missed opportunities during the game and, ultimately, a missed opportunity to create history. City were chasing a double-treble after last season’s successes in the Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup and had reached a stage in the campaign where it appeared genuinely possible.

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Guardiola batted away questions like bugs in his prematch news conference on Tuesday, saying the prospect of back-to-back trebles was “far away” and, in the end, he was proved right. But sitting top of the Premier League table, into the semifinals of the FA Cup, and favourites to beat Real Madrid after a 3-3 draw in the first leg last week, there will be a nagging feeling that something almost unimaginable was within their reach.

Real Madrid, 14-times winners and now semifinalists 12 times in 14 years, have the Champions League pedigree, but City were by far the better team over the two fixtures and dominated the game on their home turf. Guardiola’s team made 424 passes in the final third compared to Real Madrid’s 38 while registering 33 shots over the 120 minutes to Real Madrid’s eight. The Spanish side didn’t win a corner until midway through extra time, and from half-time onwards, it looked very much like Carlo Ancelotti and his players were desperate for penalties.

Bernardo Silva and Mateo Kovačić missed for City in the shootout, but the spurned chances during the game had just as big of an impact. Phil Foden should have done better with two efforts he miscued, and Kevin De Bruyne blazed a shot over the crossbar at the end of normal time with the score at 1-1. The closest Erling Haaland came was a first-half header that looped against the crossbar. Plenty of the focus on City’s inability to break down Real Madrid will fall at the Norwegian’s feet.

Strikers are forever being judged in numbers, and none more so than Haaland. Last season, it was 52 goals in 53 games as City won three trophies. Against Real Madrid, though, the numbers were 21 touches in 90 minutes and just five completed passes — the first of which didn’t arrive until the 37th minute. Well-marshalled by Antonio Rüdiger, who converted the deciding penalty in the shootout, it was no surprise that the 23-year-old was replaced with Julián Álvarez at the start of extra time. It could quite easily have been a tactical decision, although Guardiola said afterward that Haaland had asked to come off because he “could not continue.”

Despite struggling against Madrid, Haaland’s fitness gives Guardiola another headache in what he has often called the worst week of the season. The unforgiving schedule usually places the Champions League quarterfinal second leg just days before the FA Cup semifinal, and it’s the same again this year with a game against Chelsea at Wembley to come on Saturday (stream LIVE at 12:15 p.m. ET on ESPN+).

Before lifting the trophy last season, City had been knocked out at the semifinal stage in three consecutive years, losing to Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal with teams that were heavily rotated. Guardiola is facing the same dilemma ahead of his meeting with Mauricio Pochettino’s side — whether to ask more of Haaland, De Bruyne, Bernardo, Rúben Dias and Kyle Walker or to place his trust in Sergio Gómez, Matheus Nunes, Oscar Bobb and Rico Lewis.

To make matters worse, Chelsea haven’t played since Monday, when they beat Everton 6-0 at Stamford Bridge. Pochettino will have been delighted to see City’s game against Madrid go to extra time. The final 30 minutes before penalties resembled walking football, and even though Madrid looked the more leggy, trying desperately to slow the game down any way they could, City also looked tired. A big match at Wembley is an added demand for a team that is physically and emotionally drained.

Champions League exits have hit Guardiola hard in the past, but sitting in his postmatch news conference late on Wednesday, he afforded himself a smile that it was “a fantastic way to lose” because his team had been “exceptional in every department.” His assessment, however, will only add to the feeling that City could — and should — have beaten Madrid and that we should still be talking about that unprecedented double-treble. The Champions League exit puts into perspective just how impressive it was to do it once last season, but City — or any other team — might never get as close as this to two in a row.

There’s still plenty for City and Guardiola to play for this season, starting with the FA Cup semifinal on Saturday, but perhaps their only chance to reach football immortality has slipped away.