For those who deride the way Manchester City have turned themselves into one of the world’s most powerful football clubs, there must be a delicious irony to the fact that their best chance of winning the game’s top prize has come at the moment the wheels could be about to fall off.
It’s almost like a Grimms’ fairytale; the moral, be careful what you wish for – it just might ruin your life. If City win the top prize and then have the very means by which they did it discredited by European sport’s highest legal authority, it could have consequences far beyond the club’s domestic attempt to eat up the ground on runaway champions Liverpool.
As for winning the Champions League, there is surely a limit to how transformative an impact it can have on a club that has already changed beyond recognition.
It’s a scenario with little that precedes it by way of a test case. Of the European super clubs that have been the subject of fantasy football buy-outs by mega-rich investors, only Chelsea have so far satiated their owners’ vanity and won Europe’s biggest prize.
Victory in the 2012 Champions League came against long odds – the Blues won despite being battered by Barcelona in the last-four and by Bayern Munich in the final, not to mention having had to battle back from 3-1 down to squeak past Napoli in the round of 16. The European champions, who sacked manager Andre Villas-Boas in February of that year, only finished sixth in the Premier League.
The following year was one of their most difficult of the Roman Abramovich era, with the team knocked out of the Champions League at the group stage and dispensing with Vilas-Boas’ replacement Roberto di Matteo before Christmas. His replacement Rafa Benitez was appointed in haste and was himself gone by the end of the season.
The point of all this, is that circumstance is a powerful influencer, far more so than the romance and sentiment associated with winning trophies. Chelsea were a mess before they won the Champions League in 2012. They were a mess afterwards. The manager that won it for them was sacked within six months. They never got within a sniff of retaining it.
Now, City find themselves possibly on the brink of their greatest triumph at just the moment they face their biggest crisis. Winning the Champions League will change the frame of reference of the Abu Dhabi transformation over the last decade. It will be a final vindication of the billions of pounds of investment, of the dreaming and – as we now know – the scheming.
But will glory in Europe be enough to persuade Guardiola, Sterling, De Bruyne and the rest to stay despite the fact they may not be back in next year to defend the title? Maybe.
When, in 2005, Liverpool reached the final but finished fifth in the Premier League, Reds legend Phil Thompson defiantly told Sky Sports ahead of the meeting with AC Milan in Istanbul that the club would happily drop into the Uefa Cup as champions of Europe if the competition’s inflexible rules prevented them from being able to defend the title.
There’s some merit to such bullishness. If City dispute Uefa’s ruling, and the Court of Arbitration backs the governing body, then what better way to stick two fingers up at ‘the establishment’ than by beating them at their own game? It may even provide City and those that would defend their conduct with greater ammunition with which to arm themselves – you beat us with regulations, so we beat you with football.
Such an argument though would be a dead end. City could no more counter allegations of financial misdoing by winning the Champions League than could, say, Luis Suarez’s 31 goals for Liverpool in 2013/14 defend him against criticism for offences that saw him banned for a total of 18 matches over the previous two years, as some parties tried to claim at the time.
It could surely too be argued that City would have found it significantly more difficult to build a team capable of winning Europe’s top prize had they not benefited from breaking Uefa’s FFP rules. The conclusion then is that winning in Europe sits quite apart from any ban from competing over the following two seasons.
They say you’re only as good as your last win. They also say the only game that matters is the next one. In either case, how sustaining will City’s stars find their medals and memories of a historic night in Istanbul when there is no European action to look forward to in between games against Burnley, Bournemouth and Brighton?
Even this is contingent on a happy ending in Europe this season. City will be warm favourites to finish the job against Real Madrid in two weeks. Title-holders Liverpool are up against it, needing to score twice against Europe’s most parsimonious and determined defence to stay in the equation. Barcelona failed to sparkle against Napoli in their last-16 first leg. The way is opening up for City, but with so many niggling distractions – not least of all the ‘last chance saloon’ scenario that the Uefa ruling has brought to their European season – there is plenty that can still go awry for a club that has shown itself to have a mental block when it comes to this competition.
Then there’s the tangible impact their hiatus could have. Unlike Arsenal, who last week announced operating losses for the first time since 2002 following their three-year absence from the Champions League, City will absorb the financial shock of losing two years worth of European income. But could there be consequences less easy to predict? English clubs took years to catch up again with European football after their five-year ban during the 1980s following the Heysel disaster. Football exists at a depth of far more forensic detail these days. Two years is sufficient time to start being left behind.
So all the protestations of commitment to the cause come what may, perhaps should be taken with a pinch of salt. Things will get rougher before they get better at the Etihad. It will be a test of resolve for City’s stars on a hitherto uncharted scale.