MONACO — Three thoughts on Monaco’s stunning 3-1 win over Manchester City, giving them a victory on away goals (6-6 aggregate) and a spot in the Champions League quarterfinals.
1. Man City get close but Guardiola’s selection proves costly
Manchester City and Pep Guardiola will look back on their Champions League exit at the hands of AS Monaco and know they blew a golden chance to win the competition this season, but much of the blame must lie at the feet of the City manager.
City lost 3-1 on the night, going out on away goals after a 6-6 draw on aggregate, but they had the game in the bag after the 5-3 first-leg victory and also when they regained the overall lead with Leroy Sane’s second-half goal in Stade Louis II. In the final analysis, Guardiola’s tactics and team selection must come under scrutiny.
They arrived in Monte Carlo needing to defend a two-goal lead, but Guardiola inexplicably selected just one defensive midfielder in Fernandinho. He pretty much had a front five ahead of the Brazilian. With City needing to stifle the home side and deny them opportunities, Guardiola’s approach gifted Leonardo Jardim’s team the chance to get back into the tie, and the hosts were duly 2-0 ahead after just 29 minutes.
City were a shambles defensively, with their players over-hitting passes and making silly mistakes in possession. Monaco could have had a greater lead by the interval. They inevitably tired after the break and City pushed them back, but chances were missed before Sane scored. Even when City were back in the lead on aggregate, they failed to shut the game down and conceded from a set-piece when Tiemoue Bakayoko headed Monaco into the quarterfinals on 77 minutes.
Basic errors on the pitch, and by the manager, cost City their place in the last eight and Guardiola cannot escape from the scrutiny that this defeat will bring.
2. Monaco could be a victim of their own success
Jardim has built an immensely talented and exciting young team at Monaco, but their success in Ligue 1 this season and now the Champions League will have put Europe’s biggest clubs on alert.
For a club that has eschewed the big-spending approach to produce their own talent, Monaco will always be vulnerable to wealthy rivals luring their best players away for big fees. And it already seems inevitable that the French league leaders will lose at least three of their star names, and maybe even more, at the end of this season.
Both Manchester clubs are watching the powerful holding midfielder Bakayoko while United, Real Madrid and Barcelona are already vying for position in the race to sign winger Kylian Mbappe.
Mbappe, just 18, scored the opener in this game and showed once again with his blistering pace and finishing ability that he is a star in the making. Bernardo Silva is another player who will attract big money offers, as will Thomas Lemar, Djibril Sidibe, Benjamin Mendy and Fabinho.
Monaco will be unable to resist offers for all their big stars and they may also face a fight to hold into coach Jardim. If you want to see this exciting young Monaco team in action, you might need to be quick.
3. Sterling falls short too often in key moments
Guardiola has placed huge faith in Sane and Raheem Sterling as Manchester City’s pacy wide players. When at their best, the youngsters make City almost unstoppable going forward, and Guardiola will have an even more fearsome front line when Brazilian forward Gabriel Jesus recovers from his broken metatarsal injury. But while Sane is becoming a regular match-winner for City following his difficult start at the club this season, Sterling has yet to step into the role of ruthless finisher that the German has embraced.
Sane’s second-half goal, a close-range strike after goalkeeper Danijel Subasic parried a shot across the box, highlighted his goal-scoring instinct. But even though it was Sterling’s shot that led to Sane’s goal, the England international continues to frustrate when inside the penalty area, and the former Liverpool player arguably had the opportunity to put City back in this tie long before Sane’s strike gave them hope.
Too often, Sterling sprints into the box and then makes the wrong decision within sight of goal. He either takes too long to make a pass, as he did when laying off for Sergio Aguero in the second half, or he wastes time by taking too many touches before shooting.
It is a confidence issue and something that can, and should, be eradicated with work on the training ground. But Sterling has had this flaw in his game for almost four years now, and he needs to iron it out because he’s falling short.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_