Pep Guardiola knows this run in the UEFA Champions League could be last chance saloon for his excellent Manchester City side.
If last week’s rulings from UEFA are to be upheld in the Court of Arbitration for Sport, drastic changes will become a necessity for the Eastlands club this upcoming summer.
The Catalonian will be in little doubt surrounding the complexity and, indeed, the severity of the charges that have been put towards his employers, however, there has been an air of defiance emanating from the former Barcelona coach since the ruling emerged.
Two years spent out of Europe’s premier competition, the UEFA Champions League, will likely have drastic repercussions for the Citizens, something that everyone connected with the club will need little reminding of.
However, there was a steeliness about Manchester City last night. Not many sides can claim to have dispatched of Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, after all.
It is clear that Guardiola’s defiant spirit in the face of the club’s recent off-field toils has translated to his players. It is easy to dismiss City’s chances at landing the club’s first European Cup at the end of this season given their ceding of their domestic title to Liverpool this campaign – who now look all but certain to end their own title drought.
However, there is little doubt that the former Bayern chief has at his disposal one of English football history’s foremost set of players.
Prior to their relative drop-off in the league this season, Guardiola’s outfit amassed an unprecedented 198 points from just two seasons’ worth of football as well as acheiving the unique feat of a domestic treble last term.
However, the crowning glory for any side is the European Cup. Neighbours Manchester United have three of their own and rivals Liverpool down the East Lancashire Road have six.
History suggests that when sides are spoken of in the future, it will be those that were able to translate their domestic dominance into continental glory.
In the case of Manchester United’s three wins in the European Cup, each victory represented the culmination of years of domestic glory which eventually resulted in the conquering of Europe.
The three years that will be etched into the Old Trafford side’s history forever more are 1968, 1999 and 2008. Guardiola will be fully aware that this season now represents his chance to ensure immortality for a set of players who, in so many ways in recent times, have not been afforded the respect they perhaps deserve.
GUARDIOLA: RISK-TAKING MANAGER
In some ways, it is the depth of the quality in City’s squad that continues to prove an uncompromising advantage that is unmatched by any side in Europe, as last night proved.
Guardiola’s call to leave Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Fernandinho all on the bench, instead fielding Bernardo Silva and De Bruyne, who effectively alternated in the ‘false-nine’ position, was symptomatic of a manager who is not afraid to take risks; demonstrating why observers have him long pitted as one of the world’s most revered tacticians.
It goes without saying but there are few sides more formidable in the knockout stages of this competition than Real Madrid, especially under the tutelage of Zinedine Zidane, who delivered three consecutive European Cups during his first spell in charge of Los Blancos.
Sunshine + two away goals got us like…
— Manchester City (@ManCity) February 27, 2020
A win at the Santiago Bernabeu, one of European football’s true cathedrals, would stand as the finest hour in many a club’s history. Irrespective of the romance that understandably surrounds the Spanish giants, Zidane’s imperious side had not lost in any of their 12 previous knockout games under the Frenchman.
As such, to come from behind to win against the continent’s most decorated club could well come to be viewed as the start of something very special for Guardiola’s side.
Madrid were well beaten on the night and the scoreline could have worsened for them after Gabriel Jesus was pegged back after going clean-through on goal by the typically cynical Sergio Ramos, who quite deservedly was dismissed by referee Daniele Orsato, minutes from time.
Superstars Kevin de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Aymeric Laporte would be welcome additions for any side in truth and given the need for the club to restructure in the coming years, it is difficult to see the wealth of talent currently available to Guardiola being quite as extensive as it is currently, in the future.
It is not melodramatic to suggest this tilt at European glory now possibly represents ‘last chance saloon’ for this group of players.
However, the former Bayern coach will sense that, for all the upheaval of the past couple of weeks in East Manchester off the field, opportunity well and truly knocks for his incredible outfit. This side now has one solitary shot at ensuring its rightful place in European football history.
Some teams would sink under such brutal circumstances, however, there is no doubt that aside from their European record, this side have proven on countless occasions their ability to win.
During the fruitful premiership of Guardiola, no less than five major trophies have decorated the club’s coffers, with the Champions League the standout absence.
The victory in Madrid will forever stand as a landmark moment for this City side. However, Guardiola’s task now is to ensure more nights like this come his club’s way during what will possibly be this current side’s last charge at delivering Europe’s greatest prize.
Liverpool’s undeniable ascendancy under Jurgen Klopp during this campaign should not take away from the fact that Guardiola’s side of the past three years will undoubtedly will go down as one of English football’s most majestic sides.
The crowning glory for any set of players, however, will always be the European Cup. Watching Liverpool lift the continent’s most illustrious honour in the Madrid last June will have left a bitter taste for everyone connected with City despite their all-encompassing domination of the domestic competitions last term.
THE GREATEST ENGLISH SIDE NEVER TO WIN THE EUROPEAN CUP?
The reason for this is quite simple, nothing quite compares with the glamour and allure of the competition in question.
In short, wins in the competition are era-defining. For all the criticism that has been levelled at Manchester City’s financial conduct in recent weeks, there can be little denunciation of the players themselves who have, for the past three years, set a standard domestically that will, perhaps, never be bettered.
For all of Liverpool’s merits in the past two campaigns, it is clear that Jurgen Klopp’s side are, in some ways, a monster of City’s own creation. In the quest to so much as compete with Guardiola’s imperious outfit of the past three years, Klopp’s players have had to reach similarly extraordinary levels.
It is not beyond the realms of possibility that we may never quite see the likes of both sides again in English football.
As difficult as it may be to accept for City supporters, for all that was achieved last season and, indeed, the campaign prior where the club became the first team in English history to post 100 points, the club’s lack of success in the Champions League may well become an asterisk next to this most incredible side’s name in the future.
Pep Guardiola will get seldom joy out of this set of players being known as the greatest English side never to win the European Cup.
He and his players will know that in order to secure their place in history, European glory must follow the incredible feats of the past two campaigns.
For Guardiola’s side, this run in Europe’s most illustrious competition represents the opportunity to define an era in English football history. Beating Real Madrid on their own patch isn’t a bad place to start.