For Pep Guardiola, it’s probably just as well. For all the Spaniard’s genius in making City the dominant force in English football and raising the standards required to reach the top of the domestic game to unimaginable levels, if European success were non-negotiable he would, by default, be out of a job.
The trajectory of City’s continental progress under Guardiola has seen them still feel like new top boys at something approaching perennial favorites but, so far, no further. Five seasons have, in absolute terms, returned five failures. A final, no dice.
The man who shaped the Premier League’s all-star champions and conquerors (defenders and, almost certainly, chosen ones) needs no reminder, nor that for the greatest manager of his generation, 11 years between two glasses are too long, although, of course, it always will be.
“You can ask whatever you want, as many times as you want,” he said on Monday. “I know how important the Champions League is.”
Guardiola’s latest bid to deliver City’s first European title and end his own drought – two quests which over five-and-a-half seasons have become increasingly intertwined – begins in earnest against Sporting in Lisbon tonight as the quarter-finals begin.
Despite all the criticism that the group stage has become little more than a formality for Europe’s biggest clubs, there is a freshness to the Round of 16 roster, with only half of the teams having reached the same stage. one year ago.
Barcelona’s absence has been the most noted and derided, but Borussia Dortmund and Porto, near misses with four knockout ties over the past five seasons, are also absent. Meanwhile, French champions Lille haven’t gone this far since 2007; Sportsman since 2009; and even Inter Milan not for a decade. RB Salzburg never did.
Like Sporting, Lille, Inter and Salzburg all face daunting tasks, meeting Chelsea, Liverpool and Bayern Munich respectively, surely the trio of greatest threat to Guardiola’s aspirations.
City may feel hoisted by their own firecracker, the goalposts unfairly moved on what constitutes a successful season thanks to how easily they escaped Liverpool and Chelsea in the Premier League, but a premature conclusion to what was meant being a thrilling title race could still be to the advantage of the three at the end of business.
Both Real Madrid and PSG could demand inclusion in this elite bracket of favorites were it not for the mitigation that only one can even reach the quarter-finals. They will put aside their Kylian Mbappe tug-of-war to briefly engage in football in the only true heavyweight clash of a draw (or redrawn) of the last 16 that has separated most of the main protagonists.
Manchester United and Atletico Madrid’s names warrant similar billing, but not the substance. Diego Simeone’s side are fifth in La Liga, 15 points behind their city rivals in their title defense, while Ralf Rangnick described qualifying for the Champions League this season yesterday next as the best his team could hope for by the summer told you everything you needed to know; he didn’t mean by winning this one.
If there is room for a dark horse, it will probably come from one of the two remaining games: a Juventus buoyed by the January arrival of Dusan Vlahovic against Villarreal or Ajax, who play Benfica and dream of a 2019-esque run after coming through the group stage with a perfect six out of six wins.