A manager of Pep Guardiola’s intensity will not be taking anything for granted, but it is fair to say that things could have been a lot worse for Manchester City when the draw for the group phase of the 2018/19 Champions League was made a fortnight ago.
The Premier League champions were one of the top seeds by virtue of their title triumph last time out, which was always going to help their chances of avoiding one of Europe’s heavyweights. Borussia Dortmund, Roma and Napoli were possible opponents from Pot 2, while Pot 3 contained Monaco and Valencia and Pot 4 featured three-time continental kings Inter. In that light, a group of Shakhtar Donetsk, Lyon and Hoffenheim looks like a good outcome for City, even if that does not mean they should be complacent heading into the first stage of the latest edition of European football’s foremost competition.
It is no exaggeration to say that City produced one of the most impressive single seasons in the history of the English game last term. Guardiola’s charges racked up 100 points – more than any other top-flight team, even after adjusting to three points for a win pre-1981 – after winning 32 and drawing four of their 38 fixtures. They recorded the biggest title-winning margin the Premier League has ever seen, finishing 19 clear of local rivals and runners-up Manchester United, while they also wrapped up the prize earlier than any other side since the division’s rebrand in 1992.A run of 18 consecutive triumphs beat Chelsea’s 13-game winning streak from 2016/17, while 32 victories, 16 away wins and a goal difference of +79 were also Premier League records.
At times City looked to be playing football from another planet, and many expected them to replicate Manchester United’s Treble success in 1998/99. They added another League Cup to their trophy cabinet with a 3-0 victory over Arsenal at Wembley in February but fell short in the FA Cup, suffering a shock 1-0 defeat by third-tier Wigan Athletic in the fifth round. They also failed to go all the way in the Champions League, losing 5-1 to Liverpool in the quarter-finals having breezed past Basel 5-2 on aggregate in the round of 16.
City may have lost 2-1 in the second leg of their last-eight clash with the Reds at the Etihad Stadium, but the damage was done in the first meeting between the teams a week earlier. The visitors to Merseyside had conceded three goals in the space of nine minutes in the corresponding fixture in the Premier League a few months earlier, and their backline was again breached three times in a short space of time – 19 first-half minutes on this occasion – in the Champions League. City were unable to recover from that early blow; they failed to find the back of the net at Anfield and therefore missed out on a vital away goal, leaving them needing a miracle in the second leg which did not arrive.
It is not the first time a Guardiola side has suffered an emphatic loss in the latter stages of European competition. The Catalan led Barcelona to two Champions League titles in 2009 and 2011, and oversaw narrow losses in the semi-finals in 2010 (to eventual winners Inter, managed by Jose Mourinho) and 2012 (to eventual winners Chelsea). Since then, however, he has not reached another final: his Bayern Munich side lost in the last four for three years on the bounce, going down 5-0 to Real Madrid in 2014, 5-3 to Barcelona in 2015 and 2-2 (away goals) to Atletico Madrid in 2016, while City were overcome on away goals after a 6-6 aggregate draw with Monaco in the first knockout round of 2016/17.
There is no doubting Guardiola’s genius, with the former midfielder once again proving his brilliance with a record-breaking campaign at the Etihad last season. The evidence of the last few years suggests he is better suited to domestic league action than continental knockout competition, though, and while it is worth remembering that only Carlo Ancelotti, Zinedine Zidane and Bob Paisley have won the competition more often than him, the Manchester City manager will be desperate for success in the Champions League this season.
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