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Guardiola sees red, falls short in Champions League again

April 10, 2018

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola gestures during the Champions League, quarterfinal second leg soccer match against Liverpool at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester, England Tuesday April 10, 2018. (Tim Goode/PA via AP)

MANCHESTER, England (AP) — Perched high in the stands, Pep Guardiola buried his head and covered his eyes.

At times, the Manchester City manager couldn’t bear to watch as his Champions League hopes were extinguished.

On a night when his players needed him most on the touchline, Guardiola was largely helpless to intervene.

The elevated view was not out of choice but for allowing his emotions to boil over as the players departed for the halftime break.

The target of Guardiola’s wrath was Spanish referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz, who had wrongfully ruled out Leory Sane’s goal minutes earlier for offside after failing to spot that the ball had come off Liverpool’s James Milner.

“I didn’t insult the referee,” Guardiola said. “I just said, ‘It’s a goal. It came off Milner.’”

The remonstrations achieved nothing apart from Liverpool Juergen Klopp having no company on the sideline for the second half of this quarterfinal second leg that City lost 2-1 to go out 5-2 on aggregate.

Had Sane’s goal not been disallowed, City would have jumped 2-0 in front of the night.

Trailing 3-0 from the first leg at Anfield last week, a comeback would have seemed not just possible but highly conceivable from the team Klopp hails as “the best in the world.”

City had already made a storming start to this quarterfinal second leg when a goal was produced inside two minutes from Gabriel Jesus.

But, with Sane’s goal scrubbed, a single goal was a meager return for City’s relentless and energetic attacks in the first half. And when the second half began, Liverpool had a renewed vigor to take on the runway Premier League leaders.

When Mohamed Salah scored 11 minutes into the second half, Liverpool was 4-1 in front on aggregate and City had to score four goals to advance. That became five once Roberto Firmino netted in the 77th minute.

“We created chances,” Guardiola said, “but of course it’s not easy because they had 10 players behind.”

For the first time in his City career, Guardiola slumped to a third successive loss.

“We were beaten by an exceptional team,” Guardiola said.

For the third time this season. Liverpool also inflicted City’s first loss of the Premier League season. The second came on Saturday at home to Manchester United — a derby setback that denied City the chance to seal the title.

Just a blip was expected, Guardiola argued, when City has set such high standards until now with exhilarating performances.

“I have to analyze what we’ve done in 10 months and I think it’s quite good,” Guardiola said. “I saw the body language of my players. You won’t find a team who can keep the same momentum, the same rhythm, the same pace with this amount of games. It’s almost impossible.”

The Premier League trophy will still be won — within weeks given City’s 13-point lead — to go with the League Cup that is already in the Etihad Stadium trophy cabinet.

But is two trophies an adequate return for a manager who has been able to spend more than $600 million in his four transfer windows at the helm?

And when the world’s costliest defense concedes eight goals in three of the most significant games of the season in the space of seven days?

Guardiola was hired to bring the European Cup to City for the first time. Twice a Champions League winner with Barcelona, he isn’t sure he can reach the final next season.

“Last season it was the round of 16, this season it’s the quarterfinals,” Guardiola said. “Hopefully next season we can go to the semifinals.”

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Rob Harris is at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

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