Manchester City could already be crowned Premier League champions by the time they host Liverpool for the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final but they risk an anti-climactic end to a memorable season.
Even the most comprehensive of title triumphs may fail to mask the crushing disappointment of an exit from the Champions League, which looks probable after a 3-0 first leg defeat at a frenzied Anfield on Wednesday.
A three-time Champions League winner as a player and coach, Guardiola has taken the best part of two years and £500 million ($700 million) in transfer fees to mould City in his image, but his quest to turn the club into a European power — at least this season — was likely rendered futile by 19 mad minutes.
Mohamed Salah, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sadio Mane struck in quick succession in the first half as Liverpool rode a wave of emotion at their historic ground in their first Champions League quarter-final for nine years.
Oliver Kay, the chief football correspondent for The Times newspaper, said City’s problems against Liverpool should not detract from a remarkable season.
“None of this is to diminish the plaudits that Guardiola and his players have received for their form in the Premier League, which, by any measure, aesthetic or statistical, has been extraordinary,” he wrote.
“Yet the manner in which they were laid bare will haunt Guardiola all summer unless they can recover in the second leg of this tie in Manchester on Tuesday,” he added. “This was not meant to happen – not at this stage of City’s evolution.”
The Premier League leaders, who can sew up the title if they beat Manchester United at home on Saturday, knew what they were up against from the moment they approached the stadium in Liverpool, with their bus battered by cans and bottles in unsavoury scenes.
Guardiola said that experience had not unsettled his side, and the opening 10 minutes were testament to that as City stroked the ball around calmly in a manner they have become accustomed to this season.
But while other teams have been happy to sit back and accept damage limitation, Liverpool have now twice stepped forward to offer City a shootout and come out on top.
Jurgen Klopp’s men may trail City by 18 points but they did inflict Guardiola’s only league defeat this season in a 4-3 thriller at Anfield in January.
Guardiola even admitted before Wednesday’s game that City’s open style suited Liverpool’s pace of Salah, Roberto Firmino and Mane perfectly, but that he knows no other way to play.
And City’s flaws were exposed as their composure vanished after Salah netted his 38th goal of the season on the counter-attack.
As Oxlade-Chamberlain and Mane added to City’s pain, Guardiola nervously patrolled the touchline with his head in his hands.
Liverpool have been absent from the last four of Europe’s premier club competition for the past decade but they are five-time European champions and Anfield retains a mystique even City’s millions could not solve.
“It would be foolish to separate the atmosphere on Wednesday night from the outcome,” said the New York Times.
City, by contrast, have only reached the semi-finals once before in their history. Their fans’ lack of emotional attachment to the competition is shown by the club’s struggle to sell out matches at the Etihad.
With Guardiola’s former sides Barcelona and Bayern Munich and 12-time winners Real Madrid huge favourites to reach the semi-finals, this was seen as City’s chance to rubber-stamp their status as the Champions League’s up-and-coming force.
Instead it is Liverpool who look back in the big time with four of the five most successful sides in the history of the competition well set for the last four.