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UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

Man City’s pursuit of European glory on hold for another year

Man City’s pursuit of European glory on hold for another year
Manchester City striker Phil Foden (left) and midfielder Alexander Zinchenko react following the Uefa Champions League semifinals second-leg match between Real Madrid and Manchester City held at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, in Madrid, Spain, 4 May 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Sergio Perez)

In spite of having one of the best managers in world football and a treasure chest of transfer funds, Manchester City still await their maiden Uefa Champions League title.

Another season. A similar ending. Manchester City and their superstar manager, Pep Guardiola, have once again come up short in their quest for Uefa Champions League glory.

Following the team’s 6-5 aggregate loss to serial European conquerors Real Madrid three weeks ago, Manchester City and Guardiola have not rested on their laurels. They cannot afford to.

Since that sensational shock loss, when they were leading 5-3 on aggregate with just a few minutes left to play in the game, City used their subsequent Premier League opponents as stress balls.

Immediately after their European exit, fully aware that they could not afford to wallow in self-pity and slip up, they obliterated their first two opponents 10-1 on aggregate. They smashed Newcastle United 5-0. Immediately afterwards, they bulldozed Wolverhampton Wanderers 5-1.

Both wins initially strengthened their grip on the only piece of silverware they can win this season – the Premier League. That was before a rare collapse at West Ham United a week ago, when they eventually clawed their way back from 2-0 down at half-time, to level the tie at two-all.

Despite also doing the unthinkable and dropping points against Tottenham Hotspur a fortnight ago, Liverpool once again trail City by a solitary point.

A second-string side – with some key players rested – fought from a goal down for 2-1 against Southampton on 17 May.

Manchester City’s head coach, Pep Guardiola, reacts during the Uefa Champions League semifinals second-leg soccer match between Real Madrid and Manchester City held at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, in Madrid, Spain, 4 May 2022.  (Photo: EPA-EF / JUANJO MARTIN)

Same old, same old

If they can hold off the dogged Liverpool and clinch the domestic league crown on 22 May, City will plaster over yet another European failure. Winning this marathon is something they’ve already managed in three of the last four seasons. A home win over Aston Villa will seal a fourth title in five years.

Achieving that haul is a feat that would normally be deemed more than impressive at most clubs. But not for the Emirati-backed Citizens. With Liverpool offering the only tangible challenge to the Manchester club in recent seasons, it has become a monotonous achievement for those associated with the club who yearn for elusive European glory.  

When United Arab Emirates politician Sheikh Mansour seized the reins of ownership at the club back in the European summer of 2008 and proceeded to spend hundreds of millions of pounds in transfer fees over the subsequent seasons, he had one thing on his mind – European glory.

When Mansour lured the Spanish tactician and obsessive perfectionist Guardiola to Manchester in 2016, he still had the same thing in mind.

After all, in his overflowing trophy cabinet Guardiola possesses two Champions League titles, which he won with his breathtaking Barcelona side in 2009 and 2011.  

However, at City –much like during his three-year stint at Bayern Munich – he has failed to recreate the European magic he managed at Barcelona.

In the 2018 and 2019 Champions League editions, the Premier League leaders were ousted in the quarterfinals – falling to domestic rivals Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, respectively.

French side Lyon knocked them out of the quarterfinals in 2020. In the 2021 final – the Manchester club’s first in the Champions League – they lost 1-0 to Chelsea despite heading into the tie as favourites.

Following their demolition job over Newcastle, though acknowledging that the Champions League is a golden egg they would love to lay their hands on, Guardiola said they do not take winning the league title for granted either, despite their recent dominance of it.

“I’m not saying we are better or worse than the other clubs. All I say – and my quote is to defend my players – is that everything today in world football starts and ends in the Champions League,” said Guardiola. “And the Champions League is massively important, it’s the dream for us. We have not reached it. Next season we will try [again]. With me, without me, with these players, with players in the future.

“That’s why I want to give credit to my players, not to underestimate Liverpool. They could have won the last three or four that we have won because the margin was incredibly tight.

“But it shows how difficult the Premier League is – it looks like the Premier League doesn’t matter, because it’s just the Champions League. But the Premier League is so important,” Guardiola said.

Enter a Norwegian Viking

In spite of another European setback, the City owners have once again backed their manager. In fact, they have procured for him the prized jewel that is Norwegian forward Erling Haaland, taking from German club Borussia Dortmund.

Since bursting on to the scene with some charged-up Champions League performances for Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg, Haaland has been a revelation.

The 21-year-old is already considered to be one of world football’s most prolific strikers, averaging just under a goal every game (86 goals in 89 games) since joining Dortmund in 2020.

Transfer tussle

The release clause in Haaland’s contract meant the Norway international was the subject of an inevitable transfer tussle among Europe’s elite clubs.

However, City have held off the competition to finally land the number nine Guardiola has craved since losing Sergio Agüero.

“It is a decision for the club to make a good signing for the future. He can come for many, many years hopefully.

“And I am pretty sure he will adapt perfectly to our team for next season,” said Guardiola of the new addition to his already star-studded squad.

“The players make you a good manager. He is an incredible young talent, perfect age. I am pretty sure we are going to help him settle as best [as] possible.”

Of course, it takes more than just one player to win the Champions League. Or else City, possessing one of the strongest squads in world football, would have at least one European title to their name during Guardiola’s reign.

The addition of the Norwegian superstar, however, might be the difference between them losing by fine margins, as they did against Madrid, or pushing on to clinch elusive European glory. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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