When you read the damning evidence of the leaked internal club emails – published in Der Spiegel in November 2018 - which sparked Uefa’s investigation into Manchester City, it really comes as no surprise at all that they have been hit with a two-year ban from European competition for breaches of the Financial Fair Play rules.
City have, of course, vowed to put their huge financial resources into an appeal but already it looks like serious damage has been done to the club’s ambitions, with speculation now rampant about their ability to both hold onto key players and recruit top talent ahead of next season.
And then there’s the question of Pep Guardiola’s uncertain future in Manchester. Even though he has reiterated his commitment to a club to which he is contracted until the summer of 2021, his body language this season says differently.
With the defence of their Premier League title long since derailed, the manager just doesn’t seem to be enjoying his work and, having stepped back from football before, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he’s ready for another break. I wouldn’t see him leaving City to straight away join another club – he just looks to me as if he needs his batteries recharged.
Probably the most immediate impact of the Uefa sanction is that it piles even more pressure on Guardiola and his team to try to win the Champions League this year. But, in my opinion, that coveted prize is beyond City.
And while they will no doubt seek to use the ban as a source of motivation, defiant words won’t be enough to solve the chronic problems at the back which have bedevilled their performances in the Premier League this season. City simply haven’t been able to cope with the loss of the inspirational Vincent Kompany and then the long absence through injury of Aymeric Laporte.
In the first leg of their round of 16 game at the Bernabeu next week, I’d really have to fancy Real Madrid precisely because they have the attacking players who can expose City’s defensive vulnerabilities. After a false start at his new club following his move from Chelsea, Eden Hazard could well prove to be a thorn in City’s side.
Not every player hits the ground running when they change clubs; it can often be the case that even the best ones need time to settle into a new environment and integrate into a team. But now that he’s back from injury, I would expect Hazard to really come good for Madrid.
Brilliant at running with the ball, capable of picking out a killer pass, and with a lethal eye for goal, he has everything to seriously damage City over the two legs and make a bad season for them even worse.
Having also come under Uefa scrutiny, PSG can probably count themselves lucky not to have suffered the same fate as Man City. Like City, they have tried to buy their way to success in the Champions League and, again like City, it hasn’t happened for them.
Neymar, on his day, can be a great player but, when it comes to what he contributes to generating team spirit, I’m not at all sure that all the money that was paid for the Brazilian is worth the disruption and distraction he brings with him.
Invariably, the headlines are all about him and, to a lesser extent, Mbappe when PSG are going into a big Champions League game but Tuesday night against Borussia Dortmund they should both be given a serious run for their money by 19-year-old goal machine Erling Braut Haaland. And with the precocious Norwegian in such phenomenal form, an upset can’t be ruled out in this one.
German opposition, in the form of RB Leipzig, also stand in the way of Spurs, Wednesday night. Watching them narrowly squeak past Aston Villa on Sunday, I thought Tottenham looked very ordinary. At the back, they were all over the place, while it almost goes without saying that Harry Kane is a huge miss for them at the other end of the pitch.
The bigger picture isn’t any more encouraging. I’m not at all convinced that Jose Mourinho is the right fit for the club – a view which seems to be shared by many Spurs supporters – and, as things stand, I reckon Leipzig, who are just one point behind leaders Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga, have a real chance of knocking them out over two legs.
For their part, Bayern, who have hit a rich vein of goal-scoring form, will be firm favourites to see off a young and inexperienced Chelsea side, beginning with the first leg at Stamford Bridge next Tuesday. Frank Lampard could badly do with reinforcements, especially upfront where the need for back-up for Tammy Abraham is obvious.
On the same night, Napoli will be at home to Barcelona. So much has changed at Barca, on and off the pitch, but absolutely nothing has changed in terms of Lionel Messi’s critical importance to the team.
Messi is on a run of four games without a goal at the moment – his longest in La Liga in six years – but he has kept himself busy by providing no less than six assists in the same period. And I wouldn’t expect what some excitable types are calling his ‘goal drought’ to last much longer.
A bit like Barca and Messi, Juventus rely on the relentless Ronaldo to make the difference, and that should prove to be the case again against Lyon. Take PSG out of the equation, and a team at the top of Serie A should always be able to handle a side from the French league. But I don’t expect either Barcelona or Juventus to be lifting the Champions League trophy this year, any more than I expect the winners of the competition to emerge from Wednesday night’s meeting of Atalanta and Valencia.
That leaves one game in the Round of 16, as Atletico Madrid host holders Liverpool in the first leg in the Spanish capital Tuesday night. The loss of Godin and Griezmann means Atletico are not anything like as doggedly formidable as they once were, so this is a good draw coming at a good time for Liverpool.
The Premier League is already all but put to bed and, should they successfully come through these two games against Atletico, they could even find themselves in the luxurious position of being able to rest players for the remainder of their defence of the Champions League.
On the pitch, no matter what problem is put before them, Jurgen Klopp’s men seem to find the answer to win games. With the quality of three guys they have upfront, it only takes one of them to have a good day and Liverpool will come out on top. That’s why they are now on the brink of claiming their first title in 30 years.
When you consider the issues so many other clubs in the Round of 16 are facing, Liverpool currently stand out as a real exception. It has the look of a settled club, with everyone – owners, manager, players, and supporters - all pulling in the same direction. There’s not a cloud to be seen in the sky anywhere near Anfield right now, and that makes them, for me, the most likely winners of the Champions League for the second year in a row.
- Liam Brady will be on the panel Tuesday night for RTÉ 2’s live coverage of Atletico Madrid v Liverpool, with the build-up starting at 7pm.