Here they go again then. Manchester City in the Champions League knockouts: the annual crusade. Bookies’ favourites again. Bossing the Premier League again. Every year there is a sense that their time is now. Every year there are varying degrees of disappointment.
The latest – wilting against Chelsea in last year’s final – is one Pep Guardiola privately admits he called incorrectly, when he played without a holding midfielder. It was by no means the only reason City lost but it contributed.
So, still they wait for the elusive European crown under Guardiola and, whether he likes it or not, the Catalan’s legacy will be framed on that basis from those outside the club.
He is aware of the steadfast opinions held by others: that if he does not win the Champions League during his time in England, it must be deemed a failure.
Manchester City are once more the bookies favourites to win the Champions League title
City got all the way to the final last season only to lose 1-0 to Premier League rivals Chelsea
Guardiola actually brought it up unprompted last week, which suggested he already had eyes on Tuesday’s last-16 first leg at Sporting Lisbon – which was confirmed when he rang the changes for Saturday’s 4-0 win at Norwich City.
He spoke of having to accept whatever tag he is given, adding mischievously: ‘And they are jealous, so I’m sorry.’ If there is one thing we know from Guardiola over six years, it is that sometimes he cannot help himself.
On Monday, before City made their way to Portugal, he effectively claimed none of the noise really bothered him.
‘As managers, we are exposed to getting criticised when we don’t get results,’ he said. ‘Otherwise decide to get another job. It’s not a problem.’
But what if it does bother him? He is allowed to care what his detractors say, because like all of us Guardiola has ego and pride.
Even at the age of 51, he is still striving to stick it to those who want him to fail. It is part of what makes City’s pursuit to become the best team on this continent such a fascination.
Pep Guardiola is under heavy pressure to deliver Man City their first Champions League crown
Tuesday’s game should not be a problem, nor should the second leg at home to Sporting next month. Barring complete disaster, City will breeze through to another quarter-final.
Bigger tasks lie in wait, although the poetry of being back inside Estadio Jose Alvalade – the scene of their most embarrassing night under Guardiola, when Maxwel Cornet and Lyon did a number on City here in a one-off quarter-final in 2020, winning 3-1 – is not lost on those City fans making the trip. It was comfortably the nadir of the Pep era.
Monday, also marked the two-year anniversary of UEFA banning City from the competition for two years – a ruling eventually thrown out by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
After all those tribulations, this set of players, and the man leading them, need to win the Champions League – for themselves, and to cement their place in the pantheon of true greats.
‘The club has won everything but not this yet,’ said full-back Joao Cancelo. ‘We are not obliged to win it but every season we try. We know we’re a big team, we know our quality. And we know we can beat any other team in the world.
Despite all of this success, Guardiola (centre) will know it must be deemed a failure if he finishes his time with Manchester City having not won the Champions League at least once
SPORTING LISBON (Probable, 3-4-3): A Adan; Inacio, Coates, Feddal; Porro, Palhinha, Nunes, Reis; Sarabia, Paulinho, N Santos.
MANCHESTER CITY (Probable, 4-3-3): Ederson; Stones, Dias, Laporte, Cancelo; Silva, Rodri, De Bruyne; Mahrez, Foden, Sterling.
‘We take it game by game. We have one of the best squads in Europe but winning this isn’t an obligation. You have to go up against the best. We are capable of winning it but it is not our duty.
‘We are top-level players. The pressure people put on us is good. It’s a very difficult competition but we are trying.’
Last season was a significant step forward. The ruthlessness with which City dealt with Paris Saint-Germain in the last four; the way they out-attacked Borussia Dortmund before that.
Guardiola has pointed out how the fine margins in those encounters – a Riyad Mahrez free-kick curling through PSG’s brittle wall, Jude Bellingham’s unfortunate disallowed goal – went in City’s favour. In previous years those decisions, or luck, did not.
When he discusses the tombola of the Champions League’s latter stages, he is not wrong. Regardless, 2020-21 offered belief. And that seems to have heightened further.
‘We have an incredible harmony within the team, thanks to the captains and for other reasons, and we fight to keep it as high as possible,’ said Guardiola.
Better than last season? ‘Yep.’ Why? ‘My respect for them is much better. We know each other perfectly. Everyone has desire to play and fight and be part of it.’