Last August, Manchester City fans gathered at the Etihad with a sense of great anticipation for Pep Guardiola’s grand opening show, against Sunderland.
A new-look City glided around with grace and balance and passed themselves into ever-decreasing circles.
It was balletic, pretty and ushered in a new era of liquid football.
That City were extremely lucky to sneak a 2-1 win over a team that turned out to be the season’s lame donkeys was not noted down as relevant at that early stage.
Fast forward eight months and the season is finishing in the same pretty, fragile, passing triangles with a different end result.
The luck and optimism of August has long run its course.
Was Sunday the slow death of a team or the death of a philosophy in the FA Cup 2-1 semifinal defeat to Arsenal?
City, starting boldly, taking the game to their opponents, but not finishing them off when the opportunities presented themselves, ended on their knees with nothing to show for their long afternoon’s toil.
All those passes and flicks, faints and swerves.
Yet again, the same thing transpired.
In such a deeply disappointing season, the club’s followers have lost count of the games that have been tossed away, when a feast seemed to be on the menu.
It has been such a recurring theme that the standout matches flow easily from befuddled minds: Middlesbrough and Everton at home, when it seemed the imbalance was almost cruel but somehow the opponent survived with a point; the big home games with Chelsea and Tottenham, who were both played off the park but prospered (with three points and one respectively) when they should have been scooped off the Etihad turf with builders’ shovels.
Chelsea away, when a useful draw had been turned incontrovertibly into season-defining defeat.
All those passes, all those pretty circles.
There have, of course, been many barren years in the history of Manchester City, so one more should not make too much of a dent in the collective pride of the supporters.
This term’s failure, however, comes in the shape of a coiled steel fist in a well-crafted Catalan velvet glove that delivers quite a punch to the solar plexus.
For City are no longer either failure merchants or midtable wannabes.
They have places to go.
With Guardiola, many believed the sky to be the limit.
Even as the season seemed about to deliver disappointments in the Premier League, where winning situations often perplexingly became non-winning ones, with the League Cup also carelessly tossed away, the Champions League and FA Cup continued to shine alluringly.
One by one, the bright lights have been extinguished, however, and now there is nothing left but an increasingly grim struggle to finish above rivals Manchester United for fourth place.
That Guardiola’s inaugural season ends like this is a sad and threadbare thing.
It has been a difficult debut season at Manchester City for Pep Guardiola.
In a match against Arsenal that represented the one and only surviving hope of glory, City enjoyed overwhelming possession, had a goal wrongly ruled out and hit the goal frame twice.
If this was a surprise to anyone, they have obviously not been paying attention to the stuttering progress through an excruciatingly unrewarding season.
FA Cup defeat
That the semifinal witnessed a brilliant Sergio Aguero goal and a complete midfield performance from old maestro Yaya Toure might well be the most ironic point of all, as it may have represented the last really high profile match these City stalwarts play in the sky blue shirt.
Deprived early on of David Silva, crocked by Gabriel’s enthusiastic lunge, his two revered colleagues may have been spilling their last serious drops of sweat for the cause.
This groundhog semifinal of April 2017 may go down as the last time these greats paraded their talents for City in a prestige game.
With a succession of high profile games going the wrong way this season, some fans asked if it also represented the death of an approach too, with Guardiola’s self-professed love of possession and ball-to-feet having been found out by the Premier League’s more dogged challengers.
How Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce would have loved to mash this initially dithery Arsenal side with a few juicy long balls and a couple of crunching midfield challenges.
Instead, Pep’s City passed and they passed and a visibly tentative Arsenal survived and prospered.
Perhaps, like others this season, the game’s process had gradually delivered the happy realisation they were not to be totally obliterated by City’s whirring passing machine after all.
You could almost see the Londoners visibly begin to grow more confident as the idea dawned on them.
So, where do City go from here?
Straight into a suddenly intimidating-looking Manchester derby this week, a game that has the look of a particularly well-placed banana skin at this juncture.
United – suddenly a single point behind – are breathing down City’s neck and that is the last place Guardiola & Co. want them to be. – ESPN