Manchester City’s complicated and nerve-ridden relationship with the Champions League continued as they began their eighth attempt to win the competition with a miserable home defeat against Lyon to sit bottom of Group F.
On a night when manager Pep Guardiola had to remain in the stands, punishment for being sent off in last season’s quarter-final defeat against Liverpool, the Spaniard was given a painful dose of deja-vu as City produced a shaky and below-par performance in a competition they have so often under-achieved in.
The bookmakers have the English champions as favourites to lift the trophy on June 1 but they may need to revise those odds based not only on last night’s performance but on a continued feeling that there’s something which perpetually holds Sheikh Mansour’s club back on the European stage.
Lyon played outstandingly at the Etihad with a tactically astute and concentrated performance that included flashes of brilliance on the break. But this is a team which finished third in League 1 last season, 15 points behind champions PSG; and City know they will have to face far stronger sides if they are to challenge for the trophy.
Perhaps it is Mansour’s great desire to see City as European champions that makes it so difficult a task. After all, City’s quest to be the best began in 2011 with their first ever Champions League tie against Napoli — and the journey has not gone smoothly.
That opening match was drawn 1-1, Aleksandar Kolorov saving the day after Edison Cavani put the visitors ahead. City were eventually knocked out in the group stage; providing a hint of just how difficult their owner’s dream would be to make reality no matter how much he spent.
The following year they exited at the same stage without even winning a group game and were then outclassed 4-1 and 3-1 in the last 16 by Barcelona in 2014 and 2015.
The highlight so far remains reaching the semi-final in 2016 but even that is tinged with regret. Manuel Pellegrini, already knowing that he had been sacked, set up his team defensively against Real Madrid and, having drawn 0-0 at home, failed to make an impression in the Bernabeu as City bowed out.
Since then there has been a last-16 humbling by Monaco and an even more embarrassing 3-0 defeat at Anfield in the quarter-finals last year, with Jurgen Klopp’s side winning the second leg at the Etihad 2-1.
So, you can understand why there remains a slight air of nervousness around the competition for a club that is so desperate to win it and which, in the pre-match words of coach Mikel Arteta, believes it has the best team in the world.
Part of the problem, perhaps, is that City’s fans don’t quite seem to share their owner’s obsession. The Etihad was far from full against Lyon
there were empty seats in every stand,
and the crowd continued to boo the Champions League anthem in response to what they believe has been unfair treatment from Uefa in the past.
Even so, the abject first-half performance from City, was baffling — especially for an incredulous Guardiola up in the stands.
His side went into the break 2-0 down after being out-muscled and out-thought in midfield where Fernandinho twice gave away possession which led to a goal for the French visitors.
The first came after 26 minutes when the midfielder lost possession and Lyon broke quickly, with Fekir crossing sharply from the left. There was ample time for Fabian Delph to clear but he missed his kick, leaving Maxel Cornet to rifle a shot into the top corner of the net.
Fernandinho gave the ball away again on the stroke of half-time, robbed of possession when hesitating in midfield, and Fekir raced to away to arrow a superb effort past Ederson to double his side’s lead.
It was a huge headache for stand-in manager Arteta, left with the unenviable task of giving the half-time speech which would transform City’s performance. Ultimately, he couldn’t do it.
Arteta had opted not to start star striker Sergio Aguero here, even though the Argentine had recovered from an ankle injury picked up against Fulham on Saturday, and also dropped Leroy Sane in favour of Ilkay Gundogan; but there was a distinct rustiness — or carelessness — to City’s play.
Lyon, with Fekir outstanding, broke up the home team’s play superbly and punished them on the break to put the Etihad on edge.
It could have been 3-0 on the hour mark when a stunning through ball from Ndombele sent former Manchester United striker Memphis Depay through on goal — his curling effort cannoned back off the woodwork with Ederson beaten.
Both Aguero and Sane were called on to try and change the atmosphere and it was Sane who managed it, cutting a ball back for Bernardo Silva to halve the deficit with 23 minutes to go; but they couldn’t complete the job.
The result leaves City bottom of Group F, after Shakhtar Donetsk and 1899 Hoffeinheim (their next opponents) drew 2-2 earlier in the evening.
It looks like being yet another complicated — and frustrating— Champions League campaign; but surely it can’t get much worse than this?
Ederson, Walker, Stones, Laporte, Delph, Fernandinho, Gundogan (Sane 56), Silva, Bernardo, Sterling (Mahrez 76), Jesus (Aguero 63).
Lopes, Mendy, Denayer, Marcelo, Rafael (Dubois 77), Diop, Ndombele, Aouar, Fekir (Tousart 79), Cornet (Traore 90), Depay.