The Premier League champions are desperate to end their wait in Europe’s biggest competition but refuse to take their foot off the gas domestically
The Champions League remains the final missing piece of the Manchester City jigsaw if they are to join the list of truly great sides.
After two incredible domestic campaigns, taking five of the six trophies on offer and amassing 100 and 98 points in consecutive seasons – the two highest totals ever in English football’s top division – Europe has been the last frontier to conquer.
Thursday’s group-stage draw marks the start of Pep Guardiola’s fourth attempt to land the trophy the club wants more than any other.
For some of City’s celebrated players time has been running down on their chances.
David Silva has been in his final season at the club and has every medal in an enviable collection other than the Champions League. He prays he can win it.
Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho are running out of opportunities at 31 and 34 respectively and took recent disappointments hard, while Vincent Kompany’s chances have already gone.
Guardiola has won it twice as a manager but never without Lionel Messi in his side. It’s the final criticism aimed at the City manager and he understands that it will continue until he finally wins it for the first time away from Barcelona.
“I know we will be judged at the end on whether we win the Champions League,” Guardiola, said after last season’s domestic clean sweep. “I know unless we do that it will not be enough.
“This comes with [my profile], I know that. I arrived in Barcelona, we were lucky we won it two times in four years, and the people expect I am something special that we have to win the Champions League and it’s still true.”
In total it’s eight seasons since he last lifted the Champions League. But while the trophy remains the club’s ultimate goal, the push for domestic success will remain just as important.
Guardiola believes he cannot afford to take his foot off the gas if City are to have any success in Europe.
Partly it’s due to his unquenchable thirst for success. Whether it’s a one-sided Carabao Cup clash against a plucky lower league opponent like Burton Albion or a Champions League trip to the fiery inferno of Liverpool, Guardiola wants to win every game.
But he has been also fears a loss of focus if the Premier League were to take a backseat. City’s patterns and playing style are practised relentlessly on the training pitches of the Etihad Campus but honed on a matchday.
Victories bring confidence and belief and any doubts about their high-stakes possession game would threaten their chances of success in Europe.
Against Monaco three years ago, City collapsed in the second leg on the back of a troubled campaign when Guardiola was still trying to impose his philosophy.
There are still concerns that getting the jitters on big nights has cost them.
“I have the feeling that we are nervous in important Champions League games,” Ilkay Gundogan said. “We have always made the wrong decisions. In such games, we always want to do something special.”
For all their domestic domination, it has been ironic that it has been two English sides that have ended their most recent European campaigns.
City’s summer transfer business would suggest they have looked to address some of the shortcomings that cost them in last season’s exit to Tottenham.
Rodri arrived from Atletico Madrid to give more cover in the holding position for the mostly defensively-minded midfielder in Fernandinho, who didn’t start last season’s quarter-final second leg after returning from injury.
And Angelino has added extra depth at left-back due to Benjamin Mendy’s persistent injury problems, with the position causing difficulties in the previous season’s exits when Aymeric Laporte and Fabian Delph struggled in the role.
Publicly Guardiola insists the Champions League can’t be seen as the priority. In pre-season he stated that he wouldn’t “gamble everything” on winning the Champions League.
“Of course we have to win in Europe because it’s an important tournament and difficult to win,” he said. “But I am not going to go to the casino and gamble everything I have in my pocket on just seven games.
“I want to be happy for 11 months – and winning the Premier League makes me happy. Why am I going to wait until February for seven games and put everything on black?”
The comment was wrongly taken by some as a slight at Liverpool’s success; that he was somehow suggesting that the biggest prize in club football was more about pot luck than skill.
But the Champions League has been still a cup competition and no matter how well you prepare, the best team doesn’t always win it.
City have been short of fortune in the past two seasons. A quarter-final defeat to Liverpool two years ago could have been a lot different had VAR been around and ruled out two marginal goals for offside and allowed two City strikes that should have stood.
The following season it was introduced but against Spurs, Guardiola was angry that it overlooked Fernando Llorente’s winner he believed came off his arm but rightly spotted Sergio Aguero’s offside for a dramatic late winner that was missed by the referee’s assistant.
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Even at Bayern Munich, where Guardiola has been seen by some as a failure for not winning the top prize, he was out of luck. Thomas Muller missing a decisive penalty that would have put them into the final in his last season at the Allianz Arena in 2016.
City were knocked out at the semi-final stage in the same season under former boss Manuel Pellegrini. It remains their best ever performance in the competition.
Guardiola has been desperate to change that but he won’t put everything on the line to deliver it.