EPL TALK: Man City already blew season last summer, with Harry Kane miss

·Contributor
·5 min read
Manchester City's Jack Grealish after their Champions League semi-final defeat by Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid.
Manchester City's Jack Grealish after their Champions League semi-final defeat by Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid. (PHOTO: Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images)

WHEN the moment came, he was never going to miss. He doesn’t miss, not in such tense situations. He thrives on them.

As Manchester City broke on the left, he cut inside, a move rehearsed thousands of times. The angle was still tight, squeaky bum tight, but the finish was unerring, inevitable.

He had scored the decisive goal, in the 87th minute, to end any lingering hopes of a Real Madrid comeback. He basked in the adulation from the away end. He was no longer the new kid in a big city.

Harry Kane was one of their own.

But Kane didn’t join Manchester City. Jack Grealish did.

And he missed.

The maverick missed because, well, he’s a bit Jack Grealish, isn’t he? Cheeky chappie, beaming smile, quirky haircut and game for a laugh inside the dressing room.

But inside the Santiago Bernabéu, he missed, not once but twice. A body on the line stopped the first. Thibaut Courtois’ big toe diverted the second, confirmation, apparently, of those pesky footballing gods.

The breathless, overnight coverage has turned Real Madrid’s recovery into an episode of Scooby Doo. Manchester City would’ve gotten away with it, if it wasn’t for those pesky footballing gods.

Perhaps City’s fate was sealed in less spiritual circumstances last summer, when Kane’s anticipated signature morphed into Grealish’s hurried scribble. Pep Guardiola lost his man and City lost another invite to the Champions League party.

Instead, they suffered their sliding doors moment, in the 87th minute, the makings of a tragi-comedy. When Harry Met Santiago. It’s not a particularly catchy title, but it didn’t happen anyway.

And yet, cruelly, City got an idea of what Kane might have looked like at the Bernabéu. They caught a glimpse of the ghost of transfer windows past. He popped up with a penalty in the 95th minute.

And Karim Benzema scored. Because Karim Benzema usually scores. Just like Kane. They score when it matters.

Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema celebrates a goal during their Champions League semi-final clash against Manchester City at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.
Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema celebrates a goal during their Champions League semi-final clash against Manchester City at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. (PHOTO: DAX Images/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Sadly, Grealish did not. Nor did Gabriel Jesus, Phil Foden or Raheem Sterling. Riyad Mahrez did find the target, but only after spending the night hiding from Guardiola’s abuse.

They are all fine footballers. Foden retains the potential to be a truly great one. But they are not Benzema or Kane in front of goal, not able to operate within the finest of margins to instinctively and decisively settle historic encounters. They are not racing certainties.

Ironically, Guardiola lives in the fine margins. He basks in them, luxuriating in every possible permutation, worrying about how Kyle Walker might thwart Vinicius Junior (he mostly did). Or how the back four might handle Real’s crosses (they mostly didn’t.)

But the City coach was a gardener obsessing over his orchids whilst ignoring the sinkhole at the top end of his lawn. Real are in the Champions League final because they boast an unstoppable force in the relentless Benzema. City are out because they do not.

Benzema scored in both legs against City and Chelsea and smacked in a hat-trick against Paris Saint-Germain. Real didn't need the footballing goals to overcompensate for the side's ineptitude.

They had Benzema.

The French striker is only the second player to score 10 Champions League goals in the knockout phase. He’s netted 15 times in Europe overall and scored 43 goals in 43 games across all competitions.

Freakish incidents happen, but not 10 times in the knockout phases. Real’s haphazard journey owes more to a 34-year-old finisher at the peak of his powers than it does to some supernatural fluff involving divine intervention against three different opponents.

Pep Guardiola looks on during the Champions League semi-final match.
Pep Guardiola looks on during the Champions League semi-final match. (PHOTO: Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In terms of style, physicality, range and consistency, the only No.9 that rivals Benzema’s stature is the one that got away from Guardiola. Kane is currently languishing at Tottenham Hotspur, a kind of purgatory between living a good, loyal life and then spending all eternity staring into an empty trophy cabinet.

And Kane has mostly delivered in a spluttering team, too, scoring 23 goals for Spurs in all competitions, a solid return in a sloppy squad. Perhaps he was the difference at the Bernabéu, because he wasn’t there.

In the coming days, Guardiola will address the defensive basics, the sudden inability to defend crosses and win headers against inferior opposition. The difference between a decent season and a catastrophic one could be the final result against Newcastle United on Sunday.

But in quieter moments, Guardiola may ponder existential questions. Who are his forwards? Why are they here? What is their purpose? If City are chasing victory against the Magpies, who does he want tearing through on goal?

Jesus flashed a shot over against Real. Foden’s volley worked the keeper, but didn’t score. And Grealish, like Sterling before him, continues to toil under the weight of being The Next Big Thing in English Football.

So who is Guardiola’s first choice? We already know. He picked Kane to be his bride last summer, but ended up with the bridesmaid in the cute headband.

So who is Guardiola’s first choice? We already know. He picked Kane to be his bride last summer, but ended up with the bridesmaid in the cute headband.

Guardiola cannot make that mistake again. Whether he returns to Kane or flutters his eyelashes at Erling Haaland, the City manager must acknowledge his blind spot.

The eternal idealist occasionally gives the impression that conventional No.9s have all the aesthetic qualities of a gang of road sweepers. They do an important job, but it’s all a bit scruffy and ungainly for his liking.

Maybe. But he’ll never win the Champions League again without one.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.

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