Siao Mates Aug 14

Manchester City season preview: It’s Champions League or bust for Guardiola


 

It sounds strange to even say it – and for an Arsenal fan like myself, almost heretical – but Manchester City should treat the English Premier League (EPL) as an afterthought this season, not a priority.

 

There is only one competition that City should focus on winning – the Champions League.

 

Of course, that’s easier said than done, and cup competitions are generally as fickle as the loyalty of the latest generation of City fans. What’s more, the Champions League will feature far stronger teams – think Juventus, Bayern Munich, and the defiler of Financial Fair Play (FFP) themselves, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) – than the ones you can find in England.

 

Perhaps that is what makes the Champions League that much more special than the EPL. Yes, there is something to be said for having the stamina to outlast everyone over the course of 38 games, and I’ve no intention of playing down the prestige of the EPL. It is just that City have lifted the EPL title so many times these past few campaigns, that winning it again this season no longer feels quite as meaningful.

 

WATCH: Man City train ahead of season opener against Spurs

 

Yes, yes, we get it, you’re the best team in England. Now, show me something new.

 

I believe, too, that Pep Guardiola knows the Champions League is the priority this season. He’s never won the competition outside of Barcelona, and I’m certain that for a manager as ambitious and driven as him, the absence of a non-Lionel Messi inspired Champions League trophy in his cabinet must hurt his pride.

 

But City are not far off from Champions League success. How can they be, when they’ve just spent £100m (S$188m) on Jack Grealish to augment a squad that was already good enough to reach the final of the competition last season?

 

Just take a look at this City squad and the amount of attacking midfield talent they possess. Kevin De Bruyne. Phil Foden. Riyad Mahrez. Raheem Sterling. Bernard Silva. The aforementioned Grealish. Any of these players could walk straight into the starting-11 of at least 90 per cent of the teams in the EPL, no questions asked.

 

In defence, the Ruben Dias and John Stones partnership has proved to be so effective that it has managed to relegate Aymeric Laporte – once thought to be a mainstay in the first-team – to the bench. The likes of Kyle Walker, Joao Cancelo and Oleksandr Zinchenko are no slouches in the full-back positions, while Nathan Ake provides adequate, albeit slightly limited, cover across the entire City backline.

 

Yes, City’s midfield could probably do with a refresh, especially with Ilkay Gundogan hitting the big 3-0, which – as anyone who has already reached that age knows – is when your bones and muscles start to ache a little more, sometimes for no discernible reason. Fernandinho is in the twilight of his career, while the talented Rodri has yet to really find his feet in the centre of the park for the Citizens. Nonetheless, the trio still represent a formidable midfield that is capable of going toe-to-toe against any other in England, if not Europe.

 

WATCH: Gundogan's incredible 2020/2021 season

 

Now, we get to perhaps the weakest area of this City squad – the striking department. There is a very good reason why Guardiola is so desperate to sign last season’s EPL Golden Boot winner Harry Kane, and its name is Gabriel Jesus.

 

The Brazilian, unfortunately, has the killer instinct of his more famous namesake when in front of goal, although he does serve as an effective link-up man for the rest of his attacking colleagues.

 

Kane, however, is not only capable of doing all that Jesus can at possibly a higher level (blasphemous, I know), he also adds the very crucial element of goals to the team.

 

Now, the only problem with Kane is that his ankles are about as strong as Nas Daily’s credibility in the Philippines. Should Guardiola really be spending £120m or £130m on a player who gets injured whenever someone shoots a dirty look at his ankle?

 

WATCH: Guardiola gives update on Kane transfer

 

I’d argue there are better options out there for the amount of money that Tottenham Hotspur are demanding for Kane. Erling Haaland, for example, could probably be signed for £100m or so, and he would be able to lead City’s attack for years to come. They could also consider the likes of Lautaro Martinez, Paulo Dybala or even Andre Silva – more affordable options who, while maybe not as deadly in front of goal as Kane, are top quality players nonetheless.

 

But what I think matters not. Guardiola seems intent on pursuing Kane, and there is every chance that he will get his man by the end of the transfer window, seeing as how City owner Sheikh Mansour probably has £120m in loose change lying around in his diamond encrusted space submarine resort.

 

And if Kane does indeed join City, then there is absolutely no excuse for Guardiola not to deliver the Champions League this season. If City cannot go one better after spending £250m in the transfer market, then Sheikh Mansour might have to seriously reassess Guardiola’s suitability for the job.

 

After all, there is an argument to be made that City, with a top striker in tow, would possess the best team in the world, let alone Europe.

 

Okay, maybe I’m the only one making that argument because I can literally hear you screaming “PSG!” at your screens now. But here’s the thing – I don’t believe that signing players at the tail end of their careers, world class as they might have been in the past, is smart transfer business.

 

Let’s face facts, shall we, and come to terms that Messi is no longer the force he once was. At 34 years of age, he never will be again. I’d even go as far as to say that he’s no longer the best player in the world today. And when you consider that Messi’s moved from a team that was built around him for his entire career, to a club which has Neymar and Kylian Mbappe established as their main men, you can see how the Argentinian might struggle to adapt.

 

WATCH: Messi, Neymar and Mbappe in training

 

Also, they have Mauricio Pochettino in charge of the team. As the saying goes: you can take the man out of Spurs, but you can’t take Spurs out of the man.

 

That is not to say PSG won’t put up a strong challenge for the Champions League this season. They certainly will be there or thereabouts, but I’d still label City as favourites for the competition – provided they buy a striker, of course.

 

So, there really are no excuses for Guardiola to screw up yet another Champions League campaign. If focusing on that competition means forgoing the EPL, then so be it. Let somebody else take their turn on the slide – it’s time to go on the swings. 

 

It won’t matter one bit to City’s fans, and to Sheikh Mansour, if Manchester United, or Liverpool, or Chelsea win the EPL title, as long as Guardiola brings home the Champions League trophy. And for Bendtner’s sake, stop that unhealthy obsession with the Carabao Cup.

 

It’s high time for Guardiola’s City to show they’re the best in Europe. Anything less, and this season will be labelled as yet another failure.

 

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