Going by the form book, Manchester City vs Borussia Dortmund had the potential to be one of the most one-sided Champions League quarter-finals in history.
Prior to kick off, City had failed to win just one of their previous 26 fixtures. Over the same period Dortmund had lost five, leaving them well adrift of the Bundesliga top four. Two key players, Jadon Sancho and Axel Witsel, were also missing for the visitors.
Despite this, BVB were holding a sizeable psychological trump card; namely, City’s Champions League quarter-final hoodoo.
On the surface Craig Shakespeare and Pep Guardiola have very little in common. Shakespeare is never found without a ball under each arm, nestled against his great British beer belly. He is also always covered head to toe in whatever free tracksuit he can get his hands on.
Guardiola, meanwhile, treats the touchline as his own personal catwalk, repping the latest designer brands and cologne. In addition, the former Barcelona boss has a team of expensively assembled backroom staff to carry his balls for him, an idea that (probably) makes Shakespeare feel physically sick.
Perhaps the only similarity between the two coaches is that the furthest they have ever taken an English team in the Champions League is the quarter-finals. Shakespeare’s Leicester City bowed out to Atletico Madrid back in 2017, while Guardiola’s Cityzens have a list of four vanquishers. These range from the illustrious, in the case of Liverpool, to the ridiculous, in the cases of Monaco, FC Porto. and Lyon (with all due respect to them all).
On Tuesday night when Dortmund came to town, this troubling history seemed to be playing on Guardiola’s players’ minds. Against an impressive but Shakespeare-less Leicester on Saturday they were effortlessly dominant, functioning as smoothly as any Premier League team of the past decade.
This was not the case against the Bundesliga side. For all of the problems Phil Foden caused the Dortmund defence, for all of the surging Kevin De Bruyne runs and for all of Riyad Mahrez’s creativity, this was still a nervy evening with the all-conquering City guilty of several careless errors. The most notable of these was Ederson’s horrific attempt to deal with a long ball just after the half-hour mark.
Sprinting out from goal, the Brazilian carelessly took a touch and had the ball nipped off his toes by the impressive Jude Bellingham. Ederson blushes were only saved by a trigger happy referee who wrongly blew up for a foul before the ball crossed the line. This ruled out the possibility for VAR to correct the decision.
Ruben Dias – a genuine contender for several end of the season awards – also seemed rattled by the ‘curse’, or perhaps it was just the presence of Erling Haaland. Dias made a few uncharacteristic errors in the second half, while Kyle Walker’s wastefulness in possession might be blamed on this mental pressure as well.
Physiological factors may also explain the buildup to Dortmund’s potentially crucial away goal. In the preceding period City were all over their opponents, but as has often been the story when they have met lesser opposition in the quarter-finals, that killer instinct was missing.
As a result, Dortmund could knock them out with a 1-0 win next Wednesday, and while that may seem unlikely given their leaky defence you would not necessarily bet against them outscoring Guardiola’s charges on the night.
If things do go awry (again), it will be impossible for City not to cast their minds back to this evening where a more relaxed performance, free from the baggage of their disappointing past, might have put them in a far stronger position.