The Champions League is the One Manchester City Really Want
It is eight years since Pep Guardiola last won the Champions League.
In fact, for a man whose reputation was forged so emphatically by dazzling success in the competition, he has been tormented by it for some time now.
Far longer than football might have expected for a manager so lavishly praised and lauded, in fact.
Three times he has led Manchester City into Europe’s premier arena and three times he has failed even to reach the semi-finals.
Three times before that, he got Bayern Munich to the last four but never reached the final.
As the draw for the group stage looms into sight on Thursday, the analysts think it is time for Pep’s comeback. It is time for him to repeat his successes with Barcelona in 2009 and 2011.
Across the board, City are favourites to win this time around, with the final in Istanbul next Spring.
Barcelona, after another summer of big spending, are favoured second ahead of holders Liverpool and Real Madrid.
In the Champions League outright odds, City are 7/2 (+350) to win the trophy with William Hill followed by Barcelona at 5/1 (+500), Liverpool at 7/1 (+700) and Real Madrid at 8/1 (+800).
The strength and depth of City’s squad already made them favourites for the 2019-20 instalment when the books re-opened following Liverpool’s win over Tottenham in June.
Although it took a dramatic, away goals defeat to Tottenham – aided by the vagaries of VAR – to eliminate City at the last eight stage last season, Guardiola’s summer spending has clearly been aimed at making his team more resilient in the big ties in Europe.
Three full-backs have been signed, with Joao Cancelo the stand-out defensive arrival at £58 million from Juventus. The £63 million capture of the impressive defensive midfielder Rodri from Atletico Madrid was part of the same plan.
City conceded four times in that quarter-final with Spurs over two legs. They let in five goals over two legs against Liverpool at the same stage in 2017-18.
Against Monaco in 2016-17, they conceded six to lose on away goals – a 5-3 win at home being followed by a 3-1 defeat in the Principality.
Clearly, Guardiola is determined to put an end to this trend.
Shouldn’t Liverpool Be Favourites?
Not even the fact that next year’s final takes place in the Ataturk Stadium in the Turkish mega-lopolis convinces the bookies that holders Liverpool should be favoured to win again.
This was the venue where Steven Gerrard and Co. staged their fabled comeback against AC Milan to win the 2005 final.
Now Jurgen Klopp has delivered Liverpool’s sixth triumph by beating Tottenham in Madrid in June.
In the process, he completely over-turned the planned schedule that would make City English football’s next European power-house.
The prime target of all the Abu Dhabi wealth that has poured into the Etihad these past 11 years is to win the Champions League, even if they dominated the English game like no other team in history with their Treble triumph last season.
But Klopp gleefully got there before them.
The irony is that each club’s supporters want them to switch targets this season.
Liverpool will never be sated with success in the European Cup. But after reaching the past two finals, the emotional priority at Anfield is now surely to end the 30-year-wait for a league title victory.
Istanbul is painted red once again, 14 years on from their incredible triumph in the 2005 UEFA Champions League final, as Liverpool lift the UEFA Super Cup trophy 🏆 pic.twitter.com/n3KiuAzhCs— SuperSport (@SuperSportTV) August 14, 2019
City, meanwhile, have won the Premier League two seasons in succession, amassing a whopping total of 198 points.
They won the EFL Cup last season and then, when they walloped Watford 6-0 in the FA Cup final in May, there was a sense that it had been far too easy and that their dominance of English football was beginning to look a little awkward.
It makes it even more imperative that they should validate all the money spent and all the plaudits heaped upon Guardiola by ruling the European elite.
Back when Pep’s Barcelona defeated Manchester United 3-1 in the 2011 final at Wembley, it seemed he had the Champions League at his command.
United had also been beaten in the final. But the win two years later featured one of the greatest club performances seen at Wembley. United were mesmerised. It turned out, however, to be a high-point Guardiola has not come near repeating.
Liverpool’s transfer activity in the summer was minimal. Klopp says it displays the depth of faith he has in his squad. He says his team are determined to fight on all fronts. But it’s impossible to avoid the idea that a first title triumph since 1990 would validate his work at Anfield more than another Champions League victory.
What About Lionel Messi et al.?
Barcelona were famously eliminated by Liverpool in last season’s semi-final. After a 3-0 win at the Nou Camp, progress looked a formality.
Instead, they were stunned 4-0. Three weeks later, the prospect of another Treble vanished. They had already won the title but were stunned again in the final of the Copa Del Rey by Valencia.
These crushing blows might have caused psychological damage. More likely, the signing of French forward Antoine Griezmann and the arrival of Dutch midfielder Frenkie De Jong signals just how determined Barca will be to right those wrongs this time around.
The shake-up at Real has been more emphatic, with £80 million Eden Hazard the major figure among five big new arrivals along with Luka Jovic, Eder Militao, Ferland Mendy and Rodrygo. But it has been a troubled summer for coach Zinedine Zidane, with pre-season going poorly.
The new team may need to time to gel together before another Champions League triumph can be envisaged – although who gets time at the Bernabeu?
More tantalisingly, a collision between Barcelona and their former boss Guardiola in the final is highly feasible, draws permitting.
It would allow Pep the chance to bury the belief that his greatest successes were an accident of history at his former club and the product of the coming-together of an unusually talented group of home grown players such as Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
Whoever it comes against, however, he needs another Champions League win. City need their first. Isn’t it the real, main point of the whole project for both the coach and his club?