By any standard, Manchester City had a mind-blowing 2018/19 season, winning the domestic treble with a 100-point campaign in the Premier League and thus bettering the previous iteration in which Pep Guardiola won his first English title, dismissing any notion that he was, as sections of the English pressed dubbed him, Fraudiola rather than the much heralded coach from the continent.
Last season’s Premier League triumph had a cachet: City maintained their composure in a down-to-the-wire and breathtaking duel with Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. In the end, the difference was just a point, a margin by which a ball didn’t cross the line in one of their encounters. Bernardo Silva became a stalwart and Oleksandr Zinchenko, Aymeric Laporte and Raheem Sterling stepped up when required. Yet, at the end of a whirlwind campaign, City’s season felt incomplete and so City’s focus the next ten months will revolve around the piece of silverware that they have been craving for seasons: the Champions League.
The Manchester club is perhaps less informed by a European obsession than Paris Saint-Germain, but in the geopolitical war between the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, the significance of victory in Europe’s prime club competition cannot be underplayed. Guardiola was signed with the express assignment of winning the European Cup. In June, Liverpool triumphed 2-0 in an all-English Champions League in Madrid. Ironically, Liverpool, Klopp and the entire fan base would have gladly swapped their European Cup for Guardiola’s second Premier League title.
It is a scenario Guardiola would never submit to. In England, Liverpool have become City’s main rival, highlighted by the feisty and close-run Community Shield victory for Guardiola’s XI in a match that burst with intensity and a rivalry that at times resembled the heydays of the Arsenal-Manchester United duopoly. Before the game, Klopp had agitated his Spanish counterpart with a reference to the financial fantasy land City inhabit. The Manchester club broke another transfer record, signing youngster Rodri. Liverpool simply didn’t spend at all.
The Spanish midfielder should deputize for Fernandinho, who could drop a line deeper, a role he is not unaccustomed to. If Ederson, Laporte, Fernandinho, Silva, Sterling and Sergio Aguero maintain their excellence from last season and Kevin De Bruyne orchestrates the team, dictating the pace, controlling the rhythm of the match and distributing the ball with his unique vision, City will overcome the departure of Vincent Kompany, the areal commander in the back line and a major dressing room presence, and perhaps a Sane-shaped hole up front. Any opposition will be rendered futile.
In pre-season, Guardiola has insisted that the Premier League is once more his priority. In his quest for perfection, he wants a third consecutive English crown with another 100-point campaign to follow in the footsteps of Sir Alex Ferguson who won the title with Manchester United three times between 2007 and 2009. The rationale is flawed and sound at the same time: consistent three pointers in the league will translate to corresponding outings in cup competitions. Last season’s treble suggests as much, yet even Guardiola will realize that this season comes down to a simple equation: what is he willing to sacrifice for the Champions League?
In the past two seasons, City showed enough resilience to overcome setbacks. De Bruyne, Benjamin Mendy and Fernandinho got injured and Riyad Mahrez and Leroy Sane’s off-field situations were problematic and yet they held off Liverpool’s challenge. In the Champions League, Tottenham defeated City by the narrowest of margins in dramatic 4-4 melee of late goals, away goals and VAR interventions. They had battled all season for four trophies, which highlights that they could have swung the Tottenham tie their way with a more economic approach in other competitions.
Will Guardiola contemplate compromise? It jars with his idea that every match merits absolute application, but perhaps it is utopian even for the Spanish coach and his fine-tuned team to think they can win it all. The Community Shield win marked the first silverware of the new season and City enter the Premier League as sky-high favorites, so what kind of importance will City and Guardiola attach to the lesser glamorous trophies – the FA Cup and the League Cup? Ultimately, Guardiola’s legacy at City will not be measured by the number of domestic trophies he wins, but by his record in Europe. Making strides in Europe could require Guardiola to relinquish total domination of the English game.
Updated Date: Aug 08, 2019 13:19:21 IST