If you look at the winners of the Champions League, following its re-brand 24 years ago, you can notice a startling pattern. It’s the same old faces, the same old clubs earning their successes year, after year. Real Madrid and Barcelona alone have evenly shared ten years of dominance, with the former winning the competition twice in the last three years. Manchester United, AC Milan and Bayern Munich have each been two-time champions within the same period. It seems therefore, that it is an elite band of clubs that dominate Europe’s elite competition.
So for Manchester City, the task at hand seems to be, and has been, an increasingly difficult one. Those that were strong, seem only to be getting stronger, especially in Spain. The two outfits that form world football’s greatest rivalry, El Clásico, have a stronghold on world football like never before – and the improvements seem endless. Who’d have thought that the Barcelona side that carved open Manchester United at Wembley in 2011 could become even more threatening? ‘MSN’ makes Messi, Villa and Pedro seem almost futile. As for Real Madrid, Raúl’s once awe-inspiring goalscoring record has now been shamed by the predatory Cristiano Ronaldo, and Gareth Bale seems to be readying himself to fill the boots of Los Blancos’ greatest ever Galactico. Progression is evident.
Don’t get me wrong, the blue half of Manchester has undergone an incredible revolution, that has seen them now (in my opinion) surpass their once-superior neighbours, and stamp their mark on English football. But what would it take for them to do the same on the continental stage?
For me, The Citizens still have a long way to go. Take the Etihad, for example. Despite its aesthetic magnificence, it is still poorly-attended, and creates very little atmosphere on a match day. There is nothing to intimidate the opposition – no history, no seemingly-vertical stands that are packed to the rafters, no character. Compare that to Signal Iduna Park, the Nou Camp, the Santiago Bernebeu or the San Siro, and already the encounter seems easier. For their home tie against German side Borussia Monchengladbach, just over 30,000 fans were inside the ground. The statistics speak for themselves.
The next is a lack of world-beating players. In my eyes, there are only two Manchester City players that I could see realistically being in with a chance of improving the starting XI’s of Real Madrid and Barcelona – Kevin De Bruyne and a fully-fit Sergio Agüero (and even the latter I don’t think is as clinical as Luis Suarez). The defence is constantly proved to be suspect, and although Guardiola’s impact has improved that drastically – there is no real defensive marshall to step in for the injury-prone Vincent Kompany, who can lead the side as effectively from the back.
Strength in depth then, is a problem. If Madrid lose Sergio Ramos through yet another suspension, Raphael Varane steps into place. If Juventus lose Giorgio Chellini, in comes Mehdi Benatia. If Barcelona are without Pique, his spot is filled by Samuel Umtiti. Take out Kompany from a City side, and Otamendi becomes your best option. There is a gulf in class between the Manchester City defence and that of their European rivals – and it’s costing them.
Perhaps it is just down to a lack of pride? If you consider the clubs that are within the upper echelons of world football, and their respective histories, is pulling on a shirt embroidered with the crest of Bayern, Real Madrid, Barcelona or even Manchester United going to elicit the same response from those that form the Sky Blues every week? In my opinion, not at all. It’s because there is no pressure to represent all the club stands for. In 20/30 years time, maybe that’ll change, but for now, it is a harsh truth.
In fairness to Manchester City, there is a club just across The Channel suffering in almost identical fashion – Paris Saint Germain. Fuelled by rich owners, thriving domestically, but failing to penetrate the latter stages of the Champions League. These clubs aren’t in similar positions by chance – there is something that exists within a club of that mindset that repels European success. Pep Guardiola may prove me wrong – and I hope he does, for the sake of English football – but until then, we shall live in the shadow of Spain and Germany.
I sense a window of opportunity, Mr Mourinho.
By Dan Wiseman