Pep insisted City’s Quad quest was impossible. He was right

Football

LONDON — Manchester City are still on course for an incredible season, but history will have to wait. Hakim Ziyech‘s second-half goal for Chelsea ensured a 1-0 defeat for Pep Guardiola’s team in the FA Cup semifinal and ended dreams of an unprecedented Quadruple, for another year at least.

The Premier League leaders can still win three major trophies this season, with the league title almost in the bag and a Carabao Cup final against Tottenham Hotspur later this month before a two-legged Champions League semifinal against Paris Saint-Germain. But at Wembley on Saturday, Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea deservedly booked their fourth FA Cup final in five years (they will face Southampton or Leicester City on May 15) by being fitter, slicker and more decisive over 90 minutes. Ziyech’s goal was enough to win the game, but the Moroccan winger and substitute Christian Pulisic both saw goals ruled out for offside in a game that Chelsea dominated.

With City’s Quadruple chase over, Guardiola insisted he and his players have done well to even get this far.

“What could I say? We have two and a half days to recover and play away and have to travel, we were on the train for three hours and we were stopped one hour,” Guardiola said after the match. “It was a tight game, congratulations to Chelsea — they are a top side. This can happen. These guys [City] fight every game like never before I’ve seen.”

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For Chelsea, this victory extended the revival under Tuchel’s management since his appointment as Frank Lampard’s successor in January. They have lost just twice in 19 games in all competitions (and kept 14 clean sheets) under the German tactician, reached the FA Cup final and are favourites to win the race for fourth place in the Premier League following West Ham United‘s surprise defeat at Newcastle United on Saturday. And if they overcome Real Madrid in the Champions League semifinals, they could face City once again, in the final in Istanbul, and deny Guardiola’s team a first European Cup by taking it to Stamford Bridge for a second time.

In the past 10 years, City and Chelsea have dominated the English football landscape and there can be no denying that they have usurped the old order — Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal — to become top dogs. City have won nine major trophies and Chelsea have won eight since 2011-12. United (four) and Arsenal (four) have won just eight between them, while Liverpool have only just started winning again by clinching the Champions League in 2019 and Premier League last year.

But while Chelsea have been consistent winners, City have threatened to leave the rest in their wake under Guardiola. Their domestic treble in 2019 was the first time it had been achieved in English football history, so a Quadruple would have been on another scale.

United’s Treble of Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League in 1999 remains the high-water mark, though, now that City have succumbed in the FA Cup. They can still pull off a Treble, of course, by winning the league, Carabao Cup and Champions League, but Liverpool managed that in 1984, so they would only be treading a path already walked by others.

A Quadruple would have been unprecedented and relegated all those previous Trebles to footnotes in the history books, but City’s challenge now is to ensure that their pursuit of four trophies does not fizzle out and end in comparative disappointment. If they end up winning the Champions League for the first time, nobody at the Etihad will spend too much time worrying about the FA Cup. But while City remain alive in three other competitions, this defeat — and last Saturday’s Premier League loss against 10-men Leeds United — highlighted shortcomings and problems that could see Guardiola’s team slip up in the Carabao Cup and Champions League.

Chelsea’s tactic of hitting City on the counterattack, with the pace of Ziyech, Mason Mount and Timo Werner, was successful on several occasions. It also led directly to Ziyech’s goal, when Werner raced into the penalty area before pulling the ball back to the former Ajax man. United deployed a similar tactic in their Premier League win at the Etihad earlier this season, and it is likely that PSG coach Mauricio Pochettino will tell his own flying forwards — Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Angel Di Maria — to expose City’s defensive weakness.

And against Chelsea, City looked tired. Worryingly so. The Londoners had an extra day of rest following their Champions League clash with FC Porto in Seville on Tuesday, 24 hours before City’s win against Borussia Dortmund in Germany, which is perhaps why Guardiola made eight changes to his team. But those who started still travelled to Dortmund, so they didn’t enjoy a midweek off, and they won’t have this midweek off either because City must travel to Aston Villa in the Premier League on Wednesday.

Then comes the Carabao Cup final on Sunday, before the first leg in Paris three days later, so the games are mounting and so is the fatigue. The sight of Kevin De Bruyne limping off with a second-half ankle injury will also be a concern to Guardiola.

“It doesn’t look good, he has pain,” the City manager said. “We will see. Tomorrow he will have a test.”

Raheem Sterling was ineffective against Chelsea, as was Brazilian forward Gabriel Jesus, and Guardiola will need his attacking players to carry more threat against Spurs next weekend and PSG in the Champions League.

“We have not had a midweek free for eight months,” Guardiola said. “We have played a lot of games and it will continue. Now it is the Premier League, the Carabao Cup next week. It’s just one more game.”

But this is the business end of the season, when all great teams overcome injury and tiredness by finding an extra something to get them over the line. There are plenty of obstacles in City’s path, though, before they reach that finishing line and winning three trophies this season will still be a tall order.

Guardiola has always insisted it would be close to impossible to win four, and he has been proven right. The question now is how many they can still win, and whether this season will ultimately leave City feeling like they could have won more.

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