As the mid-September sun melted into the Mancunian sky, a begrudged Pep Guardiola ambled up to television cameras to offer his assessment of Manchester City’s 6-3 demolition of RB Leipzig in the opening game of the Champions League group stage.
With goals coming from all areas of the pitch, it was a blistering start to the campaign for the Champions League runners up, who were preparing to relaunch their assault on Europe’s most premier competition.
Crushed by a limp defeat at the hands of Chelsea in the final four months earlier, Guardiola’s side set out to secure an elusive Champions League trophy, starting with a dominative victory over their German opponents.
However, as sunset turned to night in East Manchester, a scowling Guardiola opened up about his disgust at the number of City supporters inside the Etihad Stadium for the Champions League opener.
Pleading with the Blues faithful, Guardiola urged more fans to turn up for the upcoming Premier League fixture against Southampton, with his comments waging a war of words.
Yet amongst the opinion pieces, phone-in radio shows and grave misunderstanding, there was one overriding feeling amongst City supporters: the Champions League just doesn’t harbour the same emotional connection.
Having played their first game in the competition a little over 10 years ago, a series of unfortunate and painstakingly torturous events has plagued City’s involvement in the Champions League since.
From finishing third in the group with 11 points during City’s maiden Champions League voyage, to sinking heartbreak at every single stage of the knockouts, the Blues’ recent European history has been punctuated by trauma.
Brushed aside by a Kylian Mbappe inspired Monaco in 2017, tormented by a belligerent VAR decision against Tottenham Hotspur in 2019, and now most recently in 2022, a freak of nature at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Be that self-inflicted or otherwise, there has been a roadblock preventing City from their ultimate goal in the Champions League, and it’s something Guardiola is all too aware of.
Often speaking about the heritage big clubs in Europe possess, Guardiola recognised from the off a change in culture would be needed if City were to compete on the continent.
Highlighting how Barcelona, the club with which Guardiola made his name as both a player and a manager, won their first European Cup in 1992, before going on to lift a further four in the decades that followed, the City boss understood Champions League success wouldn’t appear overnight.
And then there are the obvious disillusions with UEFA.
City’s infamous booing of the Champions League anthem came after a number of incidents left supporters feeling marginalised by the self-proclaimed moral arbiters of football.
An organisation who in the past have deemed turning up late to kick-off worthy of a richer fine than racial abuse, it’s little surprise City’s fanbase has struggled to adopt UEFA’s premier competition as one of its own.
While the likes of Real Madrid and Liverpool may marvel in the mystique of European games under the lights, for City, they have often been considered a hindrance.
Granted, it would be easy to label City’s shortcomings in the competition under Guardiola as failures, and at surface level they probably are.
But the foundations being built while Guardiola operates at the City helm could prove more beneficial in the long run, none more so than this season’s exit against Real Madrid.
A result that highlighted the sheer unpredictability of the Champions League, City led for 176 minutes of a 180-minute tie, before ultimately crashing out in the most dramatic of fashions.
There are few ways to comprehend or rationalise a game like that. It’s the sort of fixture exclusively reserved for one competition, and one particular club in that competition.
As Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea had found out before them, the inevitable force of Real Madrid in the Champions League was too strong for City to repel.
While the manner of the defeat may leave scars that transcend deeper than any defeat City has suffered in the competition before, undeniable progress has been forged.
Prior to Guardiola’s arrival in Manchester, the Blues had reached just one Champions League semi-final in their history, and much like this season, exit from the competition came away to Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.
A stale affair in the Spanish capital six years ago saw Manuel Pellegrini’s City side fail to register a single shot on target in the second leg of their semi-final, while limping out at the last four stage without ever really feeling like they’d given it a go.
Sharp contrast to the breathless two-legged affair against Los Blancos this time around, with perhaps the biggest marker of City’s progression in the competition being the club, and its fans, were dejected after defeat against 13-time European champions Real Madrid.
As the inquests begin and the fingers are pointed, the realisation that for the first time in the club’s history, City reached consecutive Champions League semi-finals will offer some comfort in the long run.
Amongst the chaos, the strides which City have taken in this competition shouldn’t be ignored. Be that the back-to-back to semi-final appearances, or the backs against the wall job against Atletico Madrid in the quarter-final, the club finally have some heritage in Europe to fall back on.
City’s pursuit of the poisoned chalice will continue next season, as a rejuvenated Blues side, likely to be improved by attacking personnel, will seek to achieve the seemingly unachievable and bring the Champions League to East Manchester.
But until then, results like the Real Madrid match will live long in the memory of rival fans, not because of the achievement of their own clubs, but because it prolonged City’s inevitable coronation as European champions for at least another season.
Written by: @AmosMurphy_