Before Christmas, such theories were little more than that — fantasy football hypotheses to debate in the stands or the pub.
There was only one certainty left from the rubble of the seismic announcement last night that Manchester City have been banned from the Champions League for the next two seasons — a lot of highly-paid lawyers all over Europe are about to become even wealthier than they were 24 hours ago.
But while the appeals process — that will start, and certainly not end, with the Court of Arbitration for Sport — rumbles on, the coming weeks, if not days, could offer a far more telling indication about a subject far dearer to the heart of City fans.
Pep Guardiola has cut an increasingly unhappy figure in recent months as his team’s title defence has collapsed so spectacularly.
Yet, throughout it all, the Catalan has remained insistent that his future, for next season at least, remains at the Etihad, as he aims to bounce back from a campaign which ranks high among the most futile title defences in Premier League history.
“I want to stay, I don’t have any reasons to move. I am incredibly satisfied to work with this club, with these players, and if the people think I am going to resign for these results and being nine points behind [the leaders Liverpool], the people do not know me,” said Guardiola at the time.
“I like to have this challenge, I love to be in this position. If the club wants [me] next season I want to be here 100%. I want to live in this city because I know lovely people here and I want to work and live with them and I want to be here.”
But for some time that situation has not been as straightforward as, ostensibly, appeared to be the case.
Before the turn of the year, stories emerged that Guardiola’s contract, due to run until the summer of 2021, contains a “break clause” which would allow him to leave at the end of this season, a claim that the man himself was quick to deny.
“No. It is not true,” said Guardiola at the time. “I spoke about that a few weeks ago, about my intentions for the club.” But, intriguingly, those stories were not denied by the City hierarchy who have also been linked, by a number of journalists with close ties to the Abu Dhabi ownership, with potential interest in Mauricio Pochettino, should the Argentine still be on the job market when City come to begin their search for Guardiola’s successor.
Before Christmas, such conspiracy theories were little more than that — fantasy football hypotheses to debate in the stands or the pub. Now? The Uefa bombshell has shifted the dialogue dramatically.
Last March, around the time that the Premier League announced that they were following the example of Uefa and launching their own inquiry into irregularities which the Der Spiegel investigation claimed to have unearthed, Guardiola sounded defiant.
“They know how people press, push to find something wrong,” he said.
“I work with them and have known them for a long time. I trust them a lot. After that we’ll see.
“What I wish is clarification as quickly as possible, for Uefa to see what we have done. If it is not good, then OK, we will accept it. If everything is right, then it will finish and we move forward. I would like as soon as possible [for it to be over] would be my dream but I don’t know.” The Uefa investigation, of course, took 11 more months to conclude and the appeals process will ensure it lasts far longer. The Premier League, meanwhile, are working to their own time frame and could take a long time to announce their findings.
But, crucially, Guardiola may now find that his repeated claims that he trusted his employers and their defiant position that they were guilty of no wrong-doing, has been undermined.
Certainly, City last night maintained that defiance and threatened to fight to prove their innocence by every means possible, understandably so given the importance that the club’s ownership, and their manager himself, place on the Champions League.
Guardiola built his managerial reputation on winning Europe’s biggest prize twice while in charge of his beloved Barcelona, suffered frustration in losing his next four semi-finals — one with Barca, three with Bayern Munich — while at City, his European efforts have been poor with a last 16 and two quarter-final appearances to his name.
This was not what Abu Dhabi ownership signed up for when they handed Guardiola the keys to their club in 2016 with the aim of planting City on the map of European football for years to come. The fact that they could, in theory, be expelled from the tournament for two years now makes that project all the more compicated.
And for Guardiola, who has won two league titles, an FA Cup, two League Cups and two Community Shields, what is left to motivate him in England if he is denied the chance to try and win the Champions League which he last lifted in 2011.
More importantly, given that he has spent his entire managerial career surrounded by some of the best — in the case of Barca, THE best — players in the world, will Guardiola remain in charge to rebuild City when they have suddenly become far less attractive to potential new signings.
The end game from Uefa’s announcement yesterday could be months, years, from an eventual hard outcome. The future of Guardiola could be decided before May.