The pain Manchester City felt when losing to bitter rivals Manchester United on what was meant to be their title party night may still smart three days later but it will feel like a mere wasp sting compared to what lies ahead if, as predicted, they tumble out of the Champions League against Liverpool tonight.
There’s no doubt that City fans were hurting after United came from 2-0 down to win 3-2 at the Etihad on Saturday, cutting short their celebrations and any parochial gloating which went with it; the pictures of supporters in sky blue clinging to each other in sheer horror told the story well.
But for those who run and finance the club, the emotions were almost certainly more transitory. Was it uncomfortable to see that winning goal from Chris Smalling or the lengthy celebrations of Paul Pogba? Almost definitely. Did it lead to a ‘kick the cat’ and ‘cancel the night out’ moment back in their millionaire homesteads in the leafy outskirts of Manchester?
Perhaps. But did it leave any lasting damage to the club or its investors? Did it harm the trajectory of a club that has been heading for the stars for almost a decade? Almost certainly not.
The reality is that the Premier League, and finishing above United, means everything to City supporters, especially those who still remember the days of League One and the Championship and all the hardship which went with it. But for the City hierarchy what really matters, ever since owner Sheikh Mansour arrived back in 2008, is the Champions League.
The dream since that first day has been to take Manchester City to the very top of football’s top table; to see blue ribbons on the Champions League trophy and watch City’s name engraved alongside the remarkably short list of clubs that have lifted it.
The problem is that achieving that dream has not been easy. There are things, even in football, which money can’t buy, and that includes history, prestige, and global influence — the three things City really need before they can be spoken about in the same breath as Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, AC Milan, Bayern Munich, and, whisper it, Manchester United and Liverpool.
Look at the extremes the club has gone to in a bid to find the kind of global presence, identity, and worship that Liverpool take for granted.
They have spent hundreds of millions of euro building the City brand, including setting up the City Football Group which now owns clubs all over the world, including New York City, Melbourne City, Yokohama F Marinos, Club Atletico Torque, and Girona (with a Chinese club widely rumoured to be the next purchase).
The fastest way to find a global audience is through respect and profile, the kind which comes from being crowned champions of Europe.
Look closely and you’ll see that everything City have done over the last decade has been with the aim of achieving that goal.
You can see it in the kind of players they have brought in and the style of football they have chosen to champion — and, most poignantly, in the long and patient process which led to Pep Guardiola arriving in Manchester. A man who had won the Champions League twice as coach with Barcelona and once before that as a player, a man who is expected to do the same at the Etihad.
Given Liverpool’s 3-0 lead from the first leg of the quarter-final, the chances of him achieving European success this season look slim. That’s why the sharp intake of breath from the directors’ box tonight could be louder and more significant than even on Saturday when Smalling arrived unmarked for United’s third goal.
That’s not to say Guardiola is in any way under pressure for his job — far from it. He is on the verge of agreeing a contract which will make him the highest paid football manager in the world.
But if anyone thinks winning the Premier League this season will be enough to leave Mansour or club chairman Khaldoon al Mubarak happy, they should think again. From now on, after two Premier League victories already, it’s all about the Champions League.
When Mubarak released the club’s most recent accounts, in November 2017, they showed record revenues of £473m (€542m). He concludes the report by referencing the owner’s imminent 10-year anniversary at the Etihad, saying: “In the context of more than 120 years of club history, this is a relatively short period of time, but it has been one of significant growth, with much learned and much gained on a journey that still has a long way to go.”
That journey doesn’t end until Manchester City are European champions and it means a quarter-final exit tonight, if there should be one, is potentially a bigger blow than any derby defeat. Some may argue, and very convincingly, it would be only a blip on an inexorable rise to the top.
But City only have to look at Chelsea, once the kings of the transfer market, or at PSG, who have upped the ante in the transfer window but still can’t win in Europe, to know that nothing lasts forever.
City need to get their hands on the big-eared trophy while they are in the moment, while they are on the up.
Every season without it is a missed opportunity.
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