April, 2018. Manchester City fans left the Etihad Stadium on the back of a third defeat in a week as Liverpool got the better of Pep Guardiola’s side just as they had done six days earlier at Anfield, and just as Manchester United had done on the Sunday.
It was a tough week for all concerned with City – the fans, staff, players, owners. The pundits criticized the mental state of Guardiola’s team and many asked the question: is this Manchester City side ready for European glory? Can they fight on the biggest stage of them all? Do they have the mentality to turn up for the big games, the era defining European games?
The ghost of Anfield and the Stade Louis II a year previously will haunt Manchester City going into this European campaign. For the first two years of Pep’s time in Manchester, he has seen his side played off the park by better teams and not knowing how to respond. On both occasions, City played well until going a goal behind, but then they freeze. It is almost like they do not how to react when things aren’t going their way. Those defeats highlighted flaws in the psychological elements of the team – were they mature enough?
Guardiola will have spent the summer haunted by his failure’s in Europe and as we could have guessed, the obsessive coach will have done everything in his power to put it right.
City have started the Premier League season in positive light, picking up 10 points from a possible 12, including an impressive win at the Emirates and a thrashing of David Wagner’s stubborn Huddersfield side. The early signs are that City are ready to go again in the Champions League.
Riyad Mahrez represents the only major signing for City. The Algerian winger adds a new weapon to the already heavily stocked armoury of attacking talent City have at their disposal. He has struggled for form in his early weeks in Manchester, but the best will definitely come when he gets used to his surroundings. City failed to add a midfielder as cover for Fernandinho and questions will be asked over this decision as City are tested in the later rounds of Europe – potentially a January move for Ruben Neves of Wolverhampton Wanderers could be on the cards to address this problem that Guardiola clearly eyes as a weakness.
The problem in the Liverpool defeat over two legs was twofold: City were not prolific and failed to score their chances, as well as being unable to cope with Liverpool’s high pressing and direct style of counter-attacking play in the channels. These are the two areas that Guardiola has sought to put right, and thus far is doing so.
Defensively, despite only keeping one clean sheet in the opening four, City look a lot more capable. The January capture of Aymeric Laporte is looking to be an educated buy and a shrewd decision to sign him early. Rather than waiting until the summer, City opted to pay Laporte’s release clause from Athletic Bilbao in the winter transfer window, allowing him time to settle in to his new club. So far, Laporte has started and excelled in all five games, including the Community Shield victory over Chelsea.
Another story to come out of the opening weeks for City is the form of Laporte’s partner, John Stones. Dubbed by many as a teachers pet, the Englishman is maturing into a perfect Pep defender on the back of an outstanding World Cup in Russia. Last season, his performance away at Napoli caught the eye of the watching world, winning him vast plaudits.
Should Stones and Laporte follow their trajectory and continue growing as a partnership, City look much stronger in that department. They are the start of all attacks with their passing that sets the tempo in a dictatorship-like manner, whilst being solid off the ball, which is key to City’s success.
One weapon that may have cost City in bigger games last season, if we are being really picky, was Fabian Delph’s inability to contribute to the attack on the regular. Whilst he was steady defensively, the ex-Villa midfielder-come-fullback struggled to maraud down the left in the way we see Benjamin Mendy do so.
The World Cup medallist Mendy is back from a cruel ligament injury and so far has four Premier League assists in as many appearances. Guardiola clearly sees him as an attacking weapon – the Frenchmen adds a dynamism to City’s play that can be used to thwart oppositions in the latter stages of the Champions League.
As well as this, Pep’s goalscorers seem to have picked off where they left off, with Sterling and Aguero already leading the way in terms of goals for City, as well as the likes of Gabriel Jesus and Bernardo Silva chipping in.
Sergio Agüero underwent knee surgery in late April and has admitted he feels sharper than ever. City fans can only be excited at this news, as it means Agüero could be on for another impressive goal-scoring haul. Hopefully for City, the Argentinian ace can add more goals in big Champions League knockout ties, as City look to win it.
Tying it all together, City are real candidates for the Champions League this season, probably more so than ever before.
Whilst the group opponents will not be easy tests, especially away, City should be looking to top the group. Pep has worked on the sides of City’s game that let them down in Liverpool and Monaco, and he will quietly fancy his team for glory this time round.
Looking at the other contenders, Real Madrid look weak without Cristiano, whilst Barcelona and Bayern have their flaws – City will view themselves on the same level as these European superpowers.
If you have watched the brilliant Amazon All or Nothing: Manchester City documentary, you will see Pep talk to his troops about the difference between City and the European elite in Barcelona and Madrid. He cites one word: belief.
Pep says on the pitch, City are the best team in the world, but what is holding them back is the belief that they can win in big games. That is, when they go a goal down against the run of play in a tough away game, believe. Don’t go into a strop and thus drop standards meaning the opposition score again, BELIEVE.
Should Pep’s City players adjust their temperament and start to believe that they are the best, dividends will be paid on the pitch and City will be the best, by lifting the iconic Champions League trophy for the first time.
By: Lewis Steele
Photo: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES