Most people have run out of superlatives to describe Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. Their greatness simply passes by unsaid a lot of the time these days, due to how consistently brilliant they’ve been. Two consecutive Premier League titles, recording 100 and 98 points respectively to win them, over 200 league goals in those two campaigns, all while playing the kind of breathless, blistering football that simply blows all opposition out of the water. This City team is surely the greatest in Premier League history, and should they make it three league titles in a row that will be undisputable.
However, there is still a sense that for as long as the Champions League continues to elude Man City, the project that has blossomed and burgeoned over the last ten years or so will be incomplete, regardless of whatever domestic success the club achieves. It is the final piece of the puzzle, the cherry on the icing on the cake, the pièce de résistance of City’s quest for supremacy.
A semi-final defeat to Real Madrid in 2016 is the closest City have come to winning the Champions League, and for a club so richly-resourced, and one that has dominated English football for the last couple of years, that has to be seen as disappointing. One of the strangest aspects of last season was that Manchester City and Liverpool each won the tournament the other so desperately craves – Liverpool starved of domestic glory, and City so often rendered impotent on the European stage.
Another season brings another opportunity, but for City, as each campaign goes by without the European Cup making its way into their trophy cabinet, the pressure will build and build. Liverpool have felt that pressure when they have been in the run for the Premier League title, in 2009 and 2014, and the only year they failed to crack was the year in which City excelled that little bit more.
It will be interesting to see if City do go beyond the quarter-finals of the Champions League this year how they will react to that pressure. Of course, they were a VAR decision away from reaching the semis last season, losing out to Tottenham Hotspur, but those are the margins that must be overcome in a competition so competitive and revered. UEFA Champions League betting sees City among the favourites to lift the trophy, but will the weight of expectation be too much to bear?
Guardiola failed to make a significant mark on the Champions League in his time at Bayern Munich, and this deficiency seems to have transferred to his reign at the Etihad. It could be that the pressure on Guardiola’s shoulders to outdo himself time and time again transfers onto the players, that they feel the weight of playing for such an established, heavily scrutinised manager. That pressure can easily be overcome in the domestic league, where the winning of the title is a marathon rather than a sprint. In the sharp burst that is Champions League knockout football, City have too often come up short.
Periods of success in modern football don’t usually last too long. The winds of change pick up sooner or later and another team comes along and takes the mantle. You feel it is important for City to make the most of their dominance when it comes to their performances in Europe, before the opportunity has passed the club by.
It could be that there is something intangible about City’s inability thus far to win the Champions League. They represent football’s ‘new money’, made rich by foreign investment, ascending to levels never reached before. But is there a case to be made that without a rich history of European success, an inherent pedigree that is stitched into the fabric of the shirt, City may fall short? Paris Saint-Germain have found themselves in a similar predicament, unable to conquer Europe despite the financial wealth available to them.
Meanwhile, the likes of Real Madrid and Liverpool, two storied European Cup winning clubs, scoop up the Champions League crown. You could say the same of Ajax, whose odyssey in reaching the semi-finals last season seemed in many ways inspired by the ghosts of past glories. Football lives and breathes through nostalgia, and to create that winning aura City must overcome the historical advantage that other teams perhaps possess in the Champions League.
A lot of people would assert that Manchester City are, in everything but name, the best team in Europe, but the history books don’t recognise a general feeling. For this City side to truly realise their potential, they must shake off that European Cup-shaped millstone from around their necks. The only way to do that is to do what City have made their speciality in domestic football over the last couple of years: to win.