The quarterfinals have proved to be the ceiling for Manchester City in the Champions League under Pep Guardiola.
The team is back there again, for a fourth straight season, after sweeping aside Borussia Monchengladbach in the last 16.
And this time, things feel very different.
The ruthless nature of City’s 4-0 aggregate win over Gladbach, sealed by another 2-0 victory over the German team in the second leg on Tuesday, smacked of a side in control of its destiny.
The celebrations at the full-time whistle were as business-like as the performance. For City, it felt the competition now starts for real.
“Since the first day I arrived here, five years ago, they told me you have to win the Champions League,” Guardiola said.
“So it’s always on our shoulders.”
Yet the expectations have proved too much for Guardiola and his team in successive quarterfinal exits, to Liverpool, Tottenham and then so painfully Lyon last season.
Another big performance. Quarters here we come! 💙 pic.twitter.com/0cFPg2ZNTK
— Phil Foden (@PhilFoden) March 16, 2021
This looks to be City’s best chance of becoming European champion for the first time, though.
Thanks to a blistering 12th-minute strike in off the crossbar by Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan’s goal six minutes later after a flowing team move, City racked up a 24th win in its last 25 games in all competitions and a seventh straight clean sheet in the Champions League.
The squad is injury-free. Guardiola has been able to rest and rotate his players. City leads the Premier League by 14 points, is into the final of the English League Cup, and now the quarterfinals of both the FA Cup and the Champions League.
In an intense season like no other because of the pandemic, City couldn’t be in better shape. Not that Guardiola is getting carried away.
“Everything,” he said, “can change immediately in one day.”
Certainly Gladbach was in no condition to bring City down, a seventh defeat in a row in all competitions on the cards from the moment De Bruyne met a short pass from Riyad Mahrez with a left-foot shot from the edge of the area that flew in off the underside of the crossbar.
It could have been a heavier loss for Gladbach inside an empty Puskas Arena in Budapest, which again was hosting the match because coronavirus travel restrictions prevented the team from traveling to Manchester for the return leg.
After Gundogan ran onto a reverse pass from Phil Foden and slipped in the second, City picked its moments to pick off Gladbach. Mahrez was twice denied by goalkeeper Yann Sommer in the second half and also curled wide when well-placed, while substitute Raheem Sterling stumbled after being played in by De Bruyne.
“We have to recognise the opponent was too strong for us tonight,” said Gladbach coach Marco Rose, whose team has lost every match since it was announced on February 15 that he would be leaving at the end of the season to join Borussia Dortmund.
Gladbach bade farewell to the Champions League and the team is unlikely to return to the competition for at least a year and a half, having dropped to 10th place in the Bundesliga on the back of its woeful recent run.
City, though, marches on and was joined in the last eight on Tuesday by Real Madrid, which beat Atalanta 3-1 to complete a 4-1 win on aggregate.
Liverpool, Porto, Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain reached the quarterfinals last week.
Real Madrid beat Atalanta to return to CL quarterfinals
Real Madrid took advantage of Atalanta’s costly goalkeeping change to make it back to the Champions League quarterfinals.
Madrid defeated Atalanta 3-1 on Tuesday to advance 4-1 on aggregate after two consecutive eliminations in the last 16, with Karim Benzema leading the way to victory after a first-half blunder by Atalanta goalkeeper Marco Sportiello, who was among the changes made by coach Gian Piero Gasperini from the 1-0 first-leg loss in Italy.
“I don’t have regrets on my initial choices,” Gasperini said.
“We can’t afford to make mistakes and gift goals, we wanted to do better. It’s a pity.”
Captain Sergio Ramos and Marco Asensio sealed Madrid’s victory by scoring a goal each in the second half. Atalanta’s goal came from a free kick converted by Luis Muriel late in the game.
“The goal was to advance and we came out playing with ambition to try to win the match,” Ramos said.
“We controlled the game and had chances to score even more.”
Sportiello tried to play from his area but misplayed his shot and the ball went directly to Luka Modric, who entered the box and made a low pass for an easy goal by Benzema from near the penalty spot in the 34th minute. Sportiello had replaced Pierluigi Gollini after the first leg and had been starting in Serie A since then.
It was the 70th Champions League goal for Benzema, making him only the fifth player to reach the mark in the competition after Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Robert Lewandowski and Raul Gonzalez. Only Ronaldo, Messi and Lewandowski reached the milestone quicker than the French striker’s 126 matches.
Atalanta was looking to make it to the last eight for the second straight season after a remarkable run in its debut in the top European club competition. It had won all of its away games in the Champions League this season, including against Liverpool and Ajax.
It often pressed up front to try to force Madrid into mistakes but with no success as the hosts were able to stay in control during most of the match at the Alfredo Di Stefano Stadium.
Madrid had reached the semifinals or better in eight straight seasons between 2010-11 and 2017-18 before losing to Ajax in the last 16 in 2019 and to Manchester City last season.
Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane played with the 3-5-2 formation that he had been experimenting lately, with Ramos, Raphael Varane and Nacho Fernandez as central defenders and Ferland Mendy and Lucas Vazquez on the flanks.
Ramos, who converted a 60th-minute penalty kick after Vinicius Junior was fouled inside the area, left the game a few minutes later in only his second match since a long injury layoff.
Muriel pulled Atalanta closer in the 83rd but substitute Asensio re-established Madrid’s two-goal lead a couple of minutes later.
Madrid was without the suspended Casemiro and the injured Eden Hazard.
Atalanta defender Remo Freuler was unavailable because of his red card in the first leg.
In Tuesday’s other game, Manchester City advanced to the quarterfinals for the fourth straight season by beating Borussia Monchengladbach 2-0, to seal a 4-0 win on aggregate.