Humans are habitual, they get a sense of pride and fulfilment by collecting things. Often, they are tangible items, things of little monetary value, yet of huge sentimental value. For most people, their hobby could be collecting antiques or empty bottles. I am not one of those people, as my biggest passion is in sport. Every gig or football match I attend, I keep the ticket stub safe and attach sentimental value to them, knowing that one day a decade or two down the line I will look back and remember everything about that night, with tickets from big City games or concerts of my favourite artists springing to mind.
Some collections are finite, many are not. A sticker book for example, you get a feeling of fulfilment once you have got every sticker – as a kid, you would spend your break at school trading sticker books and be in a never-ending search for the all allusive shiny sticker to complete your sticker book (usually some forgotten iconic player such as Ivan Campo, but that’s just my experience).
Yet, often, collections aren’t tangible. For me, I have a collection of Manchester City memories, but this collection is metaphorically similar to the sticker books of primary school days. It is missing one sticker.
I am only 21, I can’t brag that I was with City for three decades through the poor times. I wasn’t at York away and I was only two years old when Paul Dickov scored that goal in ’99. I have been lucky to see majorly good things at my club City and have mainly happy memories watching them win trophies at the Etihad, or on a sunny day at Wembley.
But yet, something is missing. One piece of my collection is missing: the Champions League.
I have been treated to watching some of the greats of the Premier League era strut their stuff at the Etihad, under the tutelages of the iconic Roberto Mancini and then Manuel ‘Mr. Nice Guy’ Pellegrini, through to the best manager in world football, Josep Guardiola.
The FA Cup and the League Cup have been ticked off my list, too. One thing is left to conquer: the Champions League. Then I could say with pride: “I have seen City win everything there is to win in England” (N.B. the Europa League/UEFA Cup of old and Community Shield are rendered somewhat irrelevant in my mind, although I have ‘ticked off’ the latter twice).
Evidently, City winning the Champions League would bring a sense of fulfilment to me. If I could get a ticket to the final, I am sure it would be remembered in the best days of my life. I am also certain that if City were to do it, it would be in peak ‘typical City’ fashion, probably scoring a last minute winner via a goal scored by the most unlikely source: let’s say for arguments sake it would be Kyle Walker who accidentally got in the way of Aguero’s shot and deflected it in off his backside.
If City are to do it and win the jugular, so to speak, Pep Guardiola seems the man to do it. Yet, in his first two seasons in Manchester, it hasn’t gone too well. In 2017, it was the free-flowing Monaco who played City off the park in the principality, whereas in 2018 it was Klopp’s Liverpool who got one over on City yet again.
The ghosts of Anfield and the Stade Louis II may haunt Pep Guardiola and although he puts on a brave face and adopts the attitude that the Premier League is much more important, the Catalan coach will hurt inside and have nightmares about his Champions League shortfalls in Manchester.
So, enough of the boring personal analogies and more of the football, what do Manchester City have to do to win the Champions League? Here, I have listed five things that Guardiola’s men must do (or change) to win Europe’s elite competition:
“The only difference guys, between Real Madrid, Barcelona and us is that they are f*cking believers.”
“To climb the highest mountain guys is not about this, it’s about this”, Guardiola said as he pointed to his footballing brain.
These words from Guardiola stuck with me. They were said prior to the Liverpool defeat over two legs in the Champions League last season. City’s coach lauded over his team, saying on the field they were the best in the world, but one thing is holding them back: belief.
It is the singular word that I cited when previewing City’s European season for Breaking the Lines, and is also the word that I used when describing City’s spineless performances against Liverpool and Manchester United in that catastrophic week that saw them lose the Manchester Derby and then be knocked out of the Champions League.
That day in the loss to United I used the word ‘winners’. It may be slightly different to ‘belief’ but the essence is the same.
When you look at Real Madrid, you see natural born winners: Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Toni Kroos, Cristiano— not anymore, but at the time, you almost knew they would win the Champions League because of this plethora of leaders who have ‘been there, done that’ and have the experience to conquer Europe again.
It is the sort of player that if a game is not going their way, they can turn it in the favour of their team (more on that in part 4).
On the pitch, I have every belief that City are the best team in the world with the best coach at the helm. But do they have the belief?
Do they believe in themselves to think not just “we can have a chance at the Champions League this season”, but “we will win the Champions League this season”. They have belief in the Premier League, they filmed the infamous Etisalat advert where they are referred to as Champions in February.
I’m not saying they should do a Germany of Russia 2018 and book their hotel for the final in advance, which would be in Madrid for the final at the Wanda Metropolitano, but City players need to believe they have what it takes to win the Champions League.
If City do that, they can win it.
Again, referring to that defeat at Anfield, as well as that demolishing at the Stade Louis II in Monaco, City showed they have little resilience in big games.
“But, City had a great defensive record in the league last season and Otamendi got into the team of the year”, I hear you say.
This is not an assassination of City’s defence. They have a great back four with some of the best talents in the world, including two marauding full backs and a quartet of central defenders who all bring something different to the table.
Resilience in these terms isn’t a question of how many goals a team can prevent, it is how they react to a goal being scored.
When City go one goal behind, you can almost physically see the morale drop – the body language becomes languid, the chins drop, players start pointing the finger about.
At the annual loss at Anfield, City always start well and are usually as good as their opponent, if not the better team, but when Liverpool go one goal up, the heads collectively drop and it is almost that defeat is accepted at that moment.
City have so far lacked the ability to proverbially say: “Right, five minutes, let’s get our heads and compose ourselves, then go from there.”
It was this that cost them in Monaco, Liverpool and multiple league games in Pep’s tenure, especially in the 2016/17 season. It is not a coincidence that often when City go 1-0 down, they go 2-0 down shortly after.
It is a fundamental flaw of the team that needs fixing, one that I am sure Guardiola is working on to put right. Things in football don’t go your way all season, there will be moments when you struggle on the pitch.
City’s resilience in this way has cost them in the past two seasons, and is an issue they must fix.
3. The fans
14th September, 2011: Manchester City v Napoli. It is Manchester City’s first ever Champions League match. The stadium is packed with fans, with many missing out on tickets for one of the biggest nights in the clubs history. People get to the ground abnormally early, going against their usual match day routine because it’s a huge night and they want to be in to soak up the atmosphere.
Unfortunately for City, they were knocked out at the group stages that season, with Bayern Munich rampant and a Napoli side led by Cavani, Lavezzi and Hamsik dominant. But, this wasn’t seen as a disaster at the time, after all it was City’s debut season.
A few managers and Premier League titles later, City are one of the best teams in the world. The fans do not match that. Where has the attitude that you should feel honoured to be in the Champions League gone? Where has the anticipation of these cold nights in Manchester where you can see mist descending in the South Stand gone?
Champions League group stage matches are now on the same level as a home cup tie with lower league opposition, with the club’s methods of getting people through the doors failing, evidently.
The attendance at the home fixture to Lyon this week was 41,000 – it’s an issue for another discussion but it highlights the overriding problem: City fans have a disconnection with the Champions League and only turn up when it’s the business end of the competition, or when the big boys such as Barca and Bayern play at the Etihad.
One can’t help but wonder whether the attitude of the fans trickles down on to the pitch, whether the blasé, ‘can’t be bothered with this competition attitude’ affected the players in the Lyon defeat.
Whether it be prices, travel, work commitments, weather or whatever else, many City fans think it is better to stay at home on many European nights.
When thinking about this, I asked the fan base what the best atmosphere they have experienced at the Etihad was. The results were interesting, but one answer came up time and time again.
The Aguero goal? No. The Manchester Derby where City virtually won the league? No.
In fact, it was City’s Europa League quarter-final second-leg tie with German outfit Hamburg. City did not qualify that night, but the atmosphere has stuck with fans for the ten years after.
The whole ground was behind the team and it reflected on the pitch. The great Elano hit the woodwork more than once, and the collective “Ooooh!” from the crowd left ears ringing around the stadium for minutes to follow.
The 1894 Group do a great job of creating an atmosphere in the South Stand, and the flags and banners for some Champions League nights has been admirable in recent years.
However, should City really progress and be serious about the Champions League, the mindset of the fans must change and they must try and will City over the line as they tried to do in the second leg to Liverpool last season, or in the triumph against Paris St-Germain in 2016.
Whether this starts with moving on from booing the Champions League anthem and focusing more on their own team, I am not sure, but with a rocking Etihad Stadium (like we know it can be, but 9 times out of 10 isn’t), City can really go far in this competition.
4. Keep De Bruyne fit
Now, obviously, this is out of the control of Manchester City FC, but… if City are to win the Champions League, they need their star man fit, just as Real Madrid needed Ronaldo to help them to their record three-on-the-bounce.
Kevin De Bruyne is more than City’s best player, he is a leader. Maybe not in the conventional sense, like a Vincent Kompany or a traditional captain barking orders and encouragement to his players. However, De Bruyne is a leader in the fact he leads by example football wise.
When the rest of the players are having an off day, Kevin De Bruyne is always the one to step it up and up his game to another level, which rubs off on the other players.
He is also often the player to score the goals in the tough games, earning him the ‘big game player’ tag.
Without De Bruyne, especially in the away games and tough home ties, City look void of ideas, lacking a driving force with a brain from midfield.
Should City progress further than ever in this competition, they need this leadership figure on the pitch.
“I only believe in Plan A. Plan B is to get Plan A to work” – Marcelo Bielsa.
The Argentinian coach El Loco is one of Guardiola’s inspirations in coaching and the Catalan certainly adopts some of the ideologies of the revolutionary coach who is now at Leeds United.
It is a view that is admirable. You very rarely see Guardiola sub on a 6 foot 5 target man if chasing a goal (not that he has any to do so, anyway), nor do you see him put on an extra defender in midfield, unless it is to run down the clock in the 93rd minute.
But, is it a view that is flawed?
As a Manchester City supporter, we often purr over the attacking and exciting football we are treated to at the Etihad, whilst criticising the somewhat ‘boring’ defensive performances we see over the city, but sometimes in big away Champions League ties, could Guardiola slightly alter?
It wouldn’t be drastic. It would not be a Mourinho of Chelsea and play David Luiz alongside Nemanja Matic and Ramires in a stubborn midfield. It would be more of a ‘let’s not commit every single man forward when we go forward and be more conservative’.
Guardiola has a plethora of options up his sleeve to adapt his attacking setup to break down stubborn sides such as those who ‘park the bus’ and sit in deep at the Etihad – he can switch formations in game with ease, as we saw in the win over Arsenal at the Emirates earlier this season, but can Guardiola learn to adapt his sides to be more solid at the back?
Pellegrini’s City couldn’t win the Champions League because of Pellegrini’s stubbornness to change from his 4-4-2 (a midfield duo of Toure and Fernandinho at the Bernabeu, nightmares).
Guardiola should learn these lessons and slightly alter his team in big away fixtures in the latter stages of this competition.
Despite the loss to Lyon, Manchester City have a real chance of winning this seasons Champions League, with a number of factors in their favour.
Last season, for one reason or another, City fell short in the Champions League. Despite this, they are ready to win Europe’s elite competition and if they put a few minor faults right, they are worthy favourites.
Also, if you read this you may think it is dramatically overreacting: it is. That’s what Manchester City fans do, they will never change. No matter how good City get, the fan base will always go into games expecting to lose: after all, City are the club who beat Barcelona and drew to Middlesbrough in the same week.
On a personal note, the Champions League is still a distant dream, but when I have my realistic head on, I know that Manchester City are worthy favourites. If they put these few things right, City can (will?) win it.