Sergio Aguero was the last of the Manchester City players to leave the pitch. He was in tears. His first and last Premier League games for City had brought braces as a substitute but a 13-minute cameo in the Champions League final was barren.
There was no perfect goodbye for Aguero. With Fernandinho, another substitute, out of contract in the summer, defeat to Chelsea in Porto may mean none of City’s greatest generation win the Champions League.
Yaya Toure, David Silva and Vincent Kompany had not, Aguero and perhaps Fernandinho will not. The focus will instead switch to their successors. If part of Pep Guardiola’s feats this season was to prove he could build a second superb side, its stalwarts may fear they will suffer the same fate.
Kevin de Bruyne and Raheem Sterling, the 2015 signings who predated Guardiola but were bought with him in mind, came off, the Belgian bruised by a collision with Antonio Rudiger, the Englishman an unexpected inclusion who could not have the desired impact.
The bare facts were that City fielded a more attack-minded team than most envisaged and yet registered a solitary shot on target. The margins can be small – and Edouard Mendy stood and watched as Riyad Mahrez’s injury-time half-volley only just cleared the bar – but City can feel both so near and so far away. Their decade of disappointment on the European stage means there is no guarantee they will emulate Liverpool, who were runners-up in 2018 and winners in 2019.
Guardiola has railed against predictions City should dominate in Europe. The Premier League’s competitiveness may make it harder for its sides to sustain a continental challenge year in, year out as Real Madrid and Barcelona used to.
He has become the master of league campaigns, the only manager ever to win three major European divisions three times, but knockout football brings its own vagaries. Chelsea, Champions League winners in two seasons when they changed manager in a midwinter malaise, are proof, even if that says something about their peculiar DNA.
Over 38 games, Guardiola tends to get the vast majority of his decisions right, some spectacularly. Over one, individual choices can define seasons. He is aware of the charge often levelled at him, that he overthinks things in major European games. Saturday added to the case for the prosecution.
Man City v Chelsea: Champions League final ratings
Guardiola picked a curiously timid team against Lyon last year. Sacrificing a defensive midfielder to get Sterling into the team against Chelsea came at a cost when Mason Mount turned in the space where a specialist might have been to release Kai Havertz for the goal.
N’Golo Kante’s ubiquitous display – winning 11 duels and 10 ball recoveries – turned the final into an advertisement for a defensive midfielder. City pressed Ilkay Gundogan into service as one, nullifying the attacking threat of their 17-goal top scorer.
Gundogan can be an unwitting constant in misguided schemes. The 2019 exit to Tottenham was an illustration a wonderful technician can be exposed as a defensive midfielder by quick counter-attackers; in 2018 at Anfield he was miscast in a role off the right.
The quest for a winning formula can entail a host of ideas. Guardiola’s strategy of teaming up likeminded attacking midfielders paid dividends when Phil Foden, Mahrez and De Bruyne scored eight goals between them in the quarter- and semi-finals.
There may be a temptation to blame Guardiola for his system but it should be resisted. It has propelled City further than before. The false nine policy worked to such an extent that they only lost one game this season when the supposed spearhead was actually a midfielder. Sadly for them, it was the biggest match in their history.