Wednesday 21 August 2019

Paul Wilson: 'Even a treble is unlikely to be enough for City owners'

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire

Paul Wilson

Just over three years ago, Leicester City were visitors at the Etihad when the worst-kept secret in European football was confirmed - Pep Guardiola had agreed to take over as Manchester City manager and would replace Manuel Pellegrini in the summer. By way of celebration, City managed to get themselves trounced by a side on their way to winning the league.

Any hopes Pellegrini and his players had of adding another title to the ones won in 2012 and 2014 were ended by the Foxes' rampant away form, just as Tottenham's had been a few weeks earlier.

Leicester were frequently unstoppable that season, and by the time they stormed the Etihad they had already accrued 28 points away from home. They would end up with 39, only three points fewer than their home points tally, so one of the first things Guardiola would have noted on arrival was that it was possible to win the title with a dozen drawn games and a total of 81 points. He possibly wondered what all the talk of fairytales was about.

Three years of Guardiola has made Manchester City the apparently immovable object at the top of the Premier League. The record 100 points that brought them the title last season now seems to be the rough benchmark for anyone with aspirations to challenge them and, unless Leicester, Brighton or, in the FA Cup final, Watford can cause a surprise, English football will soon see its first domestic clean sweep.

This ought to be a big deal for English football, but in fact is not really a big deal for City. While their supporters would argue otherwise - the ones who routinely boo the UEFA anthem will tell you there is no feeling in the world better than being 27 points ahead of Manchester United - the manager has accepted he needs to do better in the Champions League. The feeling persists that the club, as opposed to the fanbase, regard extra amounts of domestic silverware as merely ornamental.

City have not yet earned the right to assume they could win the Champions League. They are still to feature in a final and, on the available evidence, a side that failed to score at Tottenham would struggle against Barcelona or Ajax. It is the lack of progress in Europe that causes concern.

The semi-final reached in Pellegrini's last season remains a high-water mark. Guardiola was hired specifically because of his Champions League pedigree, yet has had no more luck in making it count in Manchester than he did in three seasons with Bayern Munich.

At least Bayern made it to the last four of the Champions League each season, in addition to winning the Bundesliga. City have gone out twice at the quarter-final stage in the past three years and once in the last 16. For a club so lavishly funded by owners keen to associate themselves with elite-level success, it must be slightly galling to have only ever managed three away victories in the Champions League knockout stages. Ajax have just done that in a single season, and against accomplished opponents.

On the positive side, City deserve credit for taking every competition they enter seriously, resisting the temptation to streamline their fixture list. They do run a squad large and talented enough to cope with most emergencies, however. Ilkay Gündogan has come into his own this season when standing in for influential players such as Kevin De Bruyne and Fernandinho, though Riyad Mahrez, who scored for Leicester against City in 2016, has been a largely unused £60m luxury.

Unsurprisingly Mahrez did not make it off the bench at Burnley last week, when City's 12th league win in a row was achieved with four centre-halves on the pitch by the end, protecting a lead gained from a shot that crossed the line by 29mm.

There has been talk in the past few days about City and Liverpool playing a different game to everyone else, which the table would certainly back up, though it is not all about the application of systems. City's narrow scrape at Burnley was reminiscent of the mere milliseconds of the 2011-'12 season remaining when Sergio Agüero so memorably clinched their first title of the Premier League era.

But to return to the present, any side that can put 12 victories together in the face of pressure from a side as good as Liverpool must be doing something right. This has been a title race worthy of the name, a rarity in recent seasons, and should City win back-to-back Premier League crowns, it will be another incremental accretion of history to their name.

Only two other clubs have done that and, while one of them made a habit of it, there is no doubt who has the upper hand in Manchester now. Europe will have to wait, even if it is easy to imagine Guardiola's preparations for next season have already started.


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