Can Manchester City banish their European demons?
Pep Guardiola often states that it is harder to win the domestic league title than the Champions League. If you crunch the numbers of the games a team needs to win, he is right, but football is not as simple as that. For many in the coaching world, winning a league title can lift them into the world class bracket of managers, but the Champions League - Europe’s greatest club competition - can propel that manager to the ‘legendary’ level of coaches that are etched in history forever.
The same criteria goes for clubs, and Manchester City are certainly no exception. The Champions League is the final piece of City’s conquering jigsaw, and this year is the best chance they have had to win the competition yet.
Last year, City were humbled by the excellent Liverpool, who out-thought Guardiola’s men over two legs, despite finishing over 20 points behind them in the league.
Jürgen Klopp’s side blew City away in the first leg, with three quick-fire goals at Anfield. This has been a constant downfall for City - not being able to bounce back after going a goal down. The problem still exists, with City losing four Premier League games so far this season, three of which were in similar circumstances.
Against Crystal Palace, Leicester and Newcastle, City led with an early goal and then proceeded to slack off both mentally and physically. In all three games, the opposition scored an equaliser, and then, City froze up. In every case, the opponent scored again to go ahead and ultimately win the game.
The biggest criticism of City in the last two seasons - with defeats to Monaco and Liverpool, two surprise packages it could be said - has been City’s mentality. The squad has been questioned for lacking the mental toughness to control big games and be more conservative. If City are to win the Champions League, they must understand that the other team will have phases in the game, and City need to have the mental toughness to hold out, or "suffer," to borrow a phrase from Antonio Conte. In many games in the Premier League, it has been all City, and the opposition rarely has a spell of possession longer than five minutes, so it is no surprise that City have struggled to cope with a barrage of possession phases from teams in foreign competition.
Despite the downfall of last season in Liverpool, the feeling is that City can really challenge in the latter stages of the competition. With striker Sergio Agüero in the best form of perhaps his whole career, and a rock-solid back line featuring the formidable pairing of John Stones and Aymeric Laporte, City can really challenge.
Agüero has netted two hat-tricks in the space of a week heading into the tie with Schalke on Wednesday, and he is proving his critics wrong week by week. With his bleached hair, the Argentine has the look of a man ready to win the Champions League. He has often been scapegoated in big European ties for ‘going missing’ and letting the game pass him by, but he looks more ready than ever to prove to the world he is a complete striker.
Behind and around him are four attacking players in remarkable form, too. City’s formation reads on paper as a 4-3-3, but in reality, it is more of a 2-3-5 when attacking. Raheem Sterling is the finest of all, and it could be said that he is City’s biggest weapon, due to his locker of traits. Kevin de Bruyne is nearing full fitness for the first time this season, while Bernardo Silva is keeping his namesake out of the team. The Portuguese has not claimed the throne of David Silva in full yet, but his plethora of skills – ball control, creativity, tireless running – are setting the wheels in motion for the ex-Monaco man to do so.
Make no mistake about it, though, Fernandinho is City’s most crucial asset. A seemingly daily debate on City social media platform is ‘who can City sign to replace Fernandinho?’ The answer, for me, is simple: no one. There is no player in world football right now that could slot into City’s side and do what Fernandinho does. Yes, there are players like Tanguy Ndombele who can mould into a world-class midfielder, but none have the full range of talents that Fernandinho has – energy, tactical know-how, passing, press-resistance, leadership. To put it in no uncertain terms: when Fernandinho plays, City play.
So overall, how will City do? Can they put the ghosts of the Stade Louis II and Anfield behind them? As a City fan, I believe they can, but I think that winning the whole thing may be one step too far. Like a kid with a sticker book with one elusive sticker missing, the Champions League would complete the set for me, and it would further Guardiola’s claim to the greatest club manager of all time.