By Simon Evans
MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) – There are times when football appears to have been scripted by Hollywood’s finest and others when the blunt realities of the game bring even the most confident down to earth.
Manchester City clinching the title at home against their local rivals Manchester United would have been the perfect happy ending to a wonderful season for Pep Guardiola’s side.
Yet the body language as City left the field at the Etihad on Saturday after throwing away a two-goal lead and losing 3-2 told its own story.
City’s players looked distraught and dejected, their heads were down and the swagger which had been so prominent throughout their entire campaign had gone.
The immediate implication of the loss was the postponement of their title celebrations, which will surely still happen at some stage in the coming weeks with Pep Guardiola’s side enjoying a 13-point lead.
Yet the impact of the defeat cut far deeper.
Three days earlier, City had been beaten 3-0 by Liverpool in their Champions League quarter-final, first leg.
The fear that the Anfield defeat may have severely damaged the players’ confidence was assuaged by a first-half display against United in which City were back to their attacking and fluent best.
They led 2-0 at the break but it could easily have been a four or five-goal advantage had chances been taken. City were strutting again and the trauma of Anfield felt like it had been consigned to the past.
But the way in which City capitulated to United after the break raised questions that will have to be addressed by Guardiola as he plans for the future.
Guardiola’s side have conceded six goals in two games, but of more concern to the Spaniard will be the fact that all those blows were landed in two short spells where his team lost any semblance of control over proceedings.
At Anfield, Liverpool’s three goals came in the space of 19 minutes in the first half. At the Etihad on Saturday, United struck three times in 16 minutes early in the second half.
In those two concentrated periods where City’s defence collapsed they gave up a goal every 5.8 minutes.
Curiously, just before the Anfield first leg, Guardiola had warned about the dangers of not keeping cool during “bad moments” in games.
“What I admire the most about the important teams – and it is something we were not able to do in this situation last season – is in the bad moments they are calm,” he said.
“Madrid, Barcelona, when the opponents are attacking, they look like they are taking a cup of coffee because their chance is coming.”
Far from looking like they were enjoying a leisurely latte, City had all the ease of a chain smoker, who has just run out of cigarettes 10 minutes before a job interview.
The game last season which Guardiola was surely referring to was when City went out of the Champions League in the last 16 to Monaco.
They won the first-leg 5-3 but conceded those three goals in the space of 29 minutes. In the return game City lost 3-1 to go out on the away goals rule, failing to deliver the prudent performance needed.
On Tuesday they simply have to deliver a perfect performance to overturn a 3-0 deficit against Liverpool.
City are more than capable of scoring the four goals needed to go through, after all they beat Liverpool 5-0 in September, but they cannot afford any more mad minutes at the back if they are to produce their own comeback story.
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Toby Davis)