Before a ball has been kicked, before their ninth run at the Champions League has even begun, the atmosphere among Manchester City fans will be bitter and hateful; the backdrop to City’s curtain-raiser in Donetsk a chorus of boos. City’s relationship with UEFA, who threaten to expel the club from the Champions League for breaching Financial Fair Play rules, is a curious oddity.
There is an obvious hypocrisy in despising an organisation while competing in its flagship tournament, and yet it is understandable. The ferocity of City fans’ jeers over the Champions League anthem betrays a deep anxiety, a cover for the fear that is building – fear for the image of the club, but more urgently fear that time is running out for Pep Guardiola’s team to win club football’s biggest prize.
By next summer UEFA may have confirmed a one-year suspension from the competition, and even if Guardiola remains at City for a season of solely domestic football that would take him to five years in Manchester, by a distance his longest stint at a single club. Few insiders see the Catalan still fighting, still energised, by 2021/22.
And so the upcoming Champions League campaign could be the final chance for Guardiola to disprove the doubters, to end a 10-year streak of failing to win an away match in a quarter-final or semi-final, and to end a nine-year wait to lift the trophy again. For Man City, then - a club transformed by Guardiola into arguably the most talented club side in history – it is, perhaps, now or never.
On purchasing the club in 2008, new chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak promised “European honours”, promised he would “build a dynasty”. It is no secret winning the Champions League has always been the ultimate aim of the project.
As if there wasn’t enough pressure on Guardiola, City are resounding favourites thanks to an unusually weak field in mainland Europe. Paris Saint-Germain remain a basket-case club stuck with the disruptive Neymar and stuck lurching between uncompetitive Ligue Un matches and pressurised Champions League knock-out ties.
Barcelona are unsettled and chaotic under Ernesto Valverde. Real Madrid’s poor start in La Liga reflects teething problems unlikely to be solved by spring. Juventus are in a transitional year as Maurizio Sarri wrenches them in a new tactical direction. Bayern Munich are a shadow of themselves under Niko Kovac.
Liverpool remain the only team that appear capable of stopping City, Jurgen Klopp the only manager who knows how to negate Guardiola over two legs. But Liverpool’s 2019 win, coupled with City’s growing strength now Kevin de Bruyne is back to full fitness, undoubtedly puts them in a stronger position to win the Champions League than at any point since the takeover by the Abu Dhabi United Group.
On paper, that is. City’s superiority over their European and domestic rivals is obvious – and yet perhaps the biggest obstacle for Guardiola is himself. Too often over the last decade he has been guilty of overthinking big matches, of obsessing too much over the fine details rather than relaxing and trusting his players’ technical and tactical supremacy.
A marginal offside call is all that stopped City defeating Tottenham last season, but the tie was truly lost in a 1-0 first-leg defeat that was entirely avoidable. Guardiola conservatively picked Ilkay Gundogan over Kevin de Bruyne and dropped into a deep 4-1-4-1 when out of possession, despite City breezing past Spurs in each of their previous three visits to London.
The season before, it was deploying Gundogan in an untested right-wing position at Anfield that led to a disjointed performance and 3-0 defeat. What should worry City fans is that Guardiola rarely, if ever, accepts he has made a tactical error; "They had two attacks and scored two goals," he said at Anfield in 2018. "That was tough but for the rest of the game we were so, so good.” Similarly, after the defeat at Spurs last season, he told BT Sport his team “played well” and “were controlling the game.”
In his defence, the margins were exceptionally fine. Sergio Aguero’s penalty miss shaped that first leg, while in the second, Fernando Llorente’s hip provided a remarkable moment of fortune for Spurs in a match City dominated. Knock-out tournament requires fortune as well as skill. But with a ban looming the clock is ticking and, 11 years into Sheikh Mansour’s ownership, an impatient Man City can no longer tolerate bad luck as an excuse.
That is why the boos grow louder; not through genuine hatred of UEFA, but because their relationship with the Champions League grows ever more anxious. City and Guardiola are desperate to remove this albatross, to complete a mission more than a decade in the making. As clubs in Europe falter, it is hard not to see City as heavy, heavy favourites, but with greater opportunity comes increased pressure. The road ahead will be fraught and emotional. It will feel impossibly long. And it will, good or bad, be era-defining.