Manchester City are 22 points behind Liverpool in the Premier League, have a European ban hanging over them and the future of their top stars is up in the air… winning the Champions League is the only way to salvage their season as they prepare for Real Madrid
- Manchester City take on Real Madrid in the Champions League on Wednesday
- It is the one competition that the new City want to win more than any other
- This could be their last chance for a while as they are facing a European ban
- They have struggled in the league but competition could help save their season
Even before the recent events that have befallen Manchester City, Pep Guardiola knew how important the Champions League was to them this season.
Ahead of playing Real Madrid on Wednesday, he told Sky Sports: ‘I want to win the Champions League.
‘I dream [of it] and I will enjoy preparing for the games against Madrid, to see what we can do and this process, two weeks before, will be the happiest moments of my profession, to imagine what we can do to beat them.
Manchester City are having a difficult season and have been hit with a ban from Europe
UEFA announced earlier this month that they would be banned from Europe for two years
It is a problem for Pep Guardiola ahead of facing Real Madrid on Wednesday evening
‘If we don’t beat them, OK, come the chairman or the sport director and say: “It’s not good enough, we want the Champions League, I’m going to sack you”.
‘OK, I’d say: “Thank you, it was a pleasure”. I don’t know [if this would happen]. It has happened many times and could maybe happen.’
The truth is that Guardiola was never likely to be sacked for going out of the Champions League. He remains a genius as a coach and City are not likely to upgrade on him.
But if there is one thing his legacy is missing, around their dominance of the English game, it is success in the competition the modern City covet more than any other. Who can forget the outpouring of grief after they lost dramatically to Spurs last season?
Guardiola showing his dejection as his side exited the Champions League last campaign
The problem for both Guardiola and City is that this might be their last shot at it for a while.
UEFA recently announced that they are facing a two-year ban from European action due to a series of Financial Fair Play breaches in the middle of the last decade.
City have appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. It is not clear whether their ban might be suspended now the formal process is under way. There is also the chance that the ban will be overturned by CAS, with City confident they can do so.
City have had a tough domestic season and are 22 points behind top in the Premier League
In the event that they are unable to argue their way back into the European game, though, they face a number of problems.
Guardiola himself has insisted that he will stay with City even if they are relegated down to League Two. Yet public proclamations like that and the reality can often be different.
The Spaniard has achieved pretty much all there is to achieve in the domestic game in England — barring an unbeaten season, which is a quirk rather than a reasonable aim. They won a domestic quadruple last season, for example, and have set points records.
Would he even be motivated to continue without the prize of winning the Champions League, something he has never done without Lionel Messi at his disposal, on the table?
If City are banned from Europe, it is difficult to see what would motivate Guardiola next season
Players might also be keen to leave. Raheem Sterling is wanted by Real, while the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Aguero, and Bernardo Silva would surely consider their futures.
There are also doubts over other members of the squad already, like Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus. It would not take much of a push for them to want to exit the Etihad Stadium. David Silva has already announced he is leaving when his contract expires in the summer.
There’s a commercial element too. For players who have tie-ups with brands, a lack of Champions League football makes them less valuable.
This would all probably be slightly tempered if City had posted a Premier League season like one of their last two. Then they swept all before them, with only Liverpool offering anything resembling a challenge as they became the first back-to-back champions in a decade.
City’s top players would also surely be tempted to leave if they are banned from Europe
Those challengers have now become the champions-elect. City’s stumbles in the face of a relentless red machine see them 22 points behind Jurgen Klopp’s side with 11 games left.
While they have not yet surrendered the title mathematically, the race has been over since around Christmas. It is a case of when, not if.
They are in the final of the Carabao Cup this weekend and could yet win the FA Cup still to give them some silverware at the end of the season. But that feels as though it is not enough for this club that has been reshaped since the Abu Dhabi takeover.
If this season does end up being the last time until autumn 2022 that Zadok the Priest is roundly jeered at the Etihad, then the best memory they can have for that spell is winning it.
City might need to win the Champions League to give them a positive from this season
Guardiola admitted Real were tough opponents due to their legacy alone: ‘I know how difficult it is against the quality of their players. I don’t know how many finals they have played in or how many times they have lifted (the trophy).
‘For us, maybe Claudio (Bravo, with Barcelona) has won the Champions League but otherwise we don’t have any players who have won this competition.
‘But we have the desire to be ourselves. We can win, we can lose but we must try to be ourselves in these 180 minutes we have to face Real Madrid.
‘For us there is an excitement. We try to do our best, knowing we play against the king of this competition.’
Guardiola has been highlighting Real’s legacy in the Champions League in recent weeks
Luckily for him, this is not the side that won it three years in a row under Zinedine Zidane. They lost Cristiano Ronaldo, for one, and their best players seem to be past their peak.
At the weekend they even fell to a shock defeat against Levante to cede control at the top of La Liga.
Eden Hazard, the star signing brought in to replace Ronaldo, will also not be available for the clash after picking up an injury in that game.
Real, clearly, are not a tremendous force. As evidenced, though, Guardiola has tons of respect for them and that could be an issue.
Thomas Muller, who played under him at Bayern, told the Athletic: ‘In knockout games, Pep pays a lot of attention to the opponents and their strengths.
Real lost to Levante at the weekend and aren’t the force they once were under Zinedine Zidane
‘He’s always a little torn between paying extreme attention and respect to the strengths of the opposition — more so than against smaller teams — and sticking to his convictions and to a system he believes in, to go, “We will play with that risk because that’s who we are”.
‘Sometimes, it’s not 100 per cent clear what we’re doing.’
Guardiola is often accused of overthinking the big Champions League games. This is a situation in which he cannot do so.
Winning the Champions League itself will not subsume a two-year absence. It will not forgive City’s poor title defence. It may not even ensure their star men stick around.
They will also not have Eden Hazard after he picked up an injury in the Levante clash
More than anything, though, the clash with Real gives City the chance to put their best foot forward when it comes to achieving that goal.
If the ban stands, winning Wednesday’s game and going on to win the tournament would give them something to remember fondly in their absence.
In a difficult season, that would be a big win and a small victory in one.
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