Man City’s defeat was travesty – but Champions League wipe-out is damaging for English football

Manchester City's players look dejected after their penalty shoot-out defeat by Real Madrid – Man City's defeat was travesty – but no Champions League semi-finalist is damaging for English football
Manchester City's players were crestfallen after their penalty shoot-out defeat by Real Madrid - Reuters/Jason Cairnduff

For only the eighth time in the past quarter of a century, England finds itself without a single representative in the last four of the Champions League. That feels, in the immediate aftermath of this soul-sapping defeat for Manchester City, like an unvarnished travesty.

Far from surrendering their status as kings of Europe, the hosts suffocated Real for much of an unbearably tense quarter-final, only for the 14-time winners to prevail through the penalties for which they had settled since half-time. It is a cruel and undeserved outcome, but when coupled with Arsenal’s tame loss in Bavaria, there is no disguising the damage that a Premier League wipe-out does to the competition’s image.

There has long been talk of a “Big Five” of European leagues, but in recent seasons the Premier League has asserted its pre-eminence as the “Big One”, cherry-picking the finest talent from all over the world and producing three of the continent’s past five champions, including two all-English finals.

Kevin De Bruyne proved, with a talismanic display here at the Etihad, that he was capable of walking into any other competition in the world. And yet at a time when three of the top seven in Opta’s rankings of the most influential clubs on Earth are English, they have been shut out of even a semi-final on the grandest stage. The line-up is set: one from Spain, one from France, two from Germany. The bare facts indicate that the axis of power has shifted.

Magnifying the embarrassment is the fact that this year’s Champions League final, on June 1, is at Wembley. It is the first to be held at the national stadium for 11 years, and there is still every chance it could be a repeat of the all-German affair in 2013 between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.

Harry Kane could be forgiven for smiling at the notion. Here is a player widely depicted as having taken a step down by moving from England to the Bundesliga, supposedly a one-team league before Bayer Leverkusen broke Bayern’s 11-year stranglehold last weekend. Now he has the chance to prove that his original ambition for the switch – to contend regularly for European titles – was well-founded.

The last time that the Premier League confronted such a bleak outlook was in 2020, at the end of a campaign profoundly warped by the pandemic. City lost tamely to Lyon in a ghostly quarter-final, with the knockout stages concertinaed into a mini-contest behind closed doors in Lisbon, before Bayern took the crown against Paris St-Germain. That particular ending could be written off as an aberration. This feels more galling, more wounding to the Premier League’s sense of its own hegemony.

One major caveat, of course, is that City marmalised Real for large parts of a draining match at the Etihad. Often a game cannot be told through statistics alone but this tale of the tape – with City producing 32 shots to the Spaniards’ eight, and 18 corners to Real’s one – was all too evident on the pitch. So remorselessly did the defending champions pepper Andriy Lunin’s goal that it was a minor miracle this match even went to extra-time. Rarely, if ever, can the Champions League’s ultimate aristocrats have been reduced to clinging on for penalties.

That was the natural effect of the relentless passing game demanded by Guardiola, of his commitment to the philosophy of death by a thousand triangles. Even Dani Carvajal looked exhausted by the end. Real’s incorrigible right-back had been playing for time ever since Rodrygo’s opening goal, at one point writhing on the halfway line in mortal agony before sprinting into the six-yard box like Noah Lyles. These cynical tactics did not bring him much relief against City, who merrily ran him into the ground in the second half.

But the brutal truth is City have nothing to show for their supremacy, their plethora of wasted chances punished, ultimately, by Real’s superior Champions League know-how. Twice in the past three years they have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory against Carlo Ancelotti’s team. It was scalding enough at the Bernabeu in 2022, where Rodrygo derailed them with two stunning late strikes, but this was worse, an attempt at an unprecedented double Treble of titles sabotaged by the grim lottery of penalties.

A further grisly consequence for the Premier League is that it looks as if there will be no fifth slot for an English club in next season’s revamped Champions League. To think, it was only a week ago that a two-legged tactical chess match of a semi-final between Guardiola and Mikel Arteta seemed a distinct possibility. Now, the concerns for City and Arsenal are purely domestic. The battle they thought would be theirs now falls to those great titans, Real and Bayern, whose experience has proved decisive.

Where City have every right to consider themselves mugged, Arsenal were neutered with ominous efficiency by Bayern. Wembley will not be festooned in red or sky-blue in five weeks’ time. It will instead offer an object lesson in how the tectonic plates have subtly shifted, and in how the Premier League’s creeping power-grab can sometimes be resisted.