Pep Guardiola and his Manchester City squad could not get out of the Estadio do Dragao quickly enough after losing last season’s Champions League final against Chelsea in Porto. Guardiola gave the briefest of postmatch interviews and his players headed out of the stadium with barely a word to any media outlet as Thomas Tuchel’s side paraded the trophy after their 1-0 victory.
Even now, almost 12 months on, you will be hard-pressed to find any reaction or reflection from Guardiola’s players about that night in Portugal. It is as though the club’s first, and only, Champions League final appearance didn’t happen at all.
Only the City players and Guardiola will know why they were, and remain, so reluctant to talk about falling at the final hurdle last season, but it would be a safe bet to suggest that winning the Champions League has now become such a mixture of desperation and expectation at the Etihad Stadium that reflecting on a near miss is only likely to intensify the pressure to finally win the biggest competition in club football.
But City’s failure to win the Champions League since being transformed by the financial power of Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan in 2008 has become a sporting anomaly.
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According to Transfermarkt, City have spent £1.49 billion on transfers since 2011-12 — more than any other club in world football — and they also employ arguably the world’s greatest coach in Guardiola, who has won multiple titles with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and City. Guardiola has also won two Champions League with Barcelona, in 2009 and 2011.
City’s domestic success in England has seen them qualify for the Champions League in 11 consecutive seasons since 2011-12, but despite all their advantages, Tuesday’s semifinal first-leg clash with Real Madrid will be only their third appearance in the past four since Sheikh Mansour’s takeover 14 years ago.
During that same span, Real Madrid have won four Champions Leagues and Barcelona have won three; Chelsea have been crowned European champions twice; Liverpool have reached two finals, winning one of them; Manchester United have reached two finals, losing both to Guardiola’s Barcelona.
Even accounting for the time needed to build the club up following the takeover, City have still failed to punch their weight. Chelsea took five years to reach a Champions League final following Roman Abramovich’s takeover in 2003 and nine years to win it. But 14 years on, Sheikh Mansour is still waiting for City to win the ultimate prize.
When ESPN spoke to City’s Abu Dhabi hierarchy in 2018 to mark the 10th anniversary of the Sheikh Mansour’s arrival, club chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak made it clear that Champions League success was expected “sooner rather than later.”
“The short answer is, yes we should win it [Champions League] in the next 10 years, and obviously sooner rather than later,” Al Mubarak told ESPN. “But it’s hard. It took Barcelona almost 50 years to win their first Champions League — it’s a very difficult competition and what makes it even more difficult for English teams is the competition in the Premier League. We have the disadvantage of having to play an incredibly difficult game every weekend. Not all the competition we face in the Champions League has that.”
It is debatable whether playing in the Premier League continues to be a disadvantage to clubs like City, though. Since 2018, the competition has been dominated by City and Liverpool to the extent that domestic challenges have diminished, steamrollered by the quality and depth of the two best squads in the country and, arguably, Europe.
Sheikh Mansour’s continued investment in the City team has simply made Guardiola’s squad stronger, to the point where mitigating factors for Champions League failure no longer apply.
City used to be able to argue that they were the new kids on the block, battling to catch up with the established elite. They had to build their own winning machine and earn the right to compete as equals, but City are now as powerful and wealthy as any team in Europe and they have left domestic giants such as Man United and Arsenal firmly in their wake.
So there are no more excuses for failing to win the Champions League. They have found every piece of the jigsaw — it is now just a case of putting them all together when it matters.
When they faced Real in their first Champions League semifinal in 2016, Manuel Pellegrini’s City were underdogs and played as though they were unsure of their place sharing a stage with arguably the biggest club in the world. But City will be favourites against Real this time. They are top of the Premier League, with key players such as Kevin De Bruyne, Ruben Dias, Raheem Sterling and Ederson all fit and on top form.
The days of stage fright and reasons for falling short are long gone. It was the same in Porto last season, which is probably why it remains such a sore subject, but after 14 years of investment and elite recruitment, it’s time for City to deliver in the Champions League.