It took Manchester City just four years to win the Premier League following the club’s acquisition by Sheikh Mansour in 2008, but an assault on the Champions League has proved much more challenging.
While City have won four of the last eight league titles and established themselves as the team to beat in England, they have struggled to mount a serious challenge for European club football’s holy grail.
As Pep Guardiola’s team aim to secure top spot in their group and a more favourable draw in the first knockout round with a win over Shakhtar Donetsk tonight, could this be their season?
Continental giants Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus and Bayern Munich are all undergoing periods of transition, meaning there has rarely been a better opportunity for City to win the trophy that has eluded them.
It was for this competition that serial winner Guardiola was brought in on a £20m-a-year contract, following the minimal inroads achieved in Europe by Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini.
Elusive European silverware
City are 49 years and counting without a major European trophy, their only triumph being the 1970 European Cup Winners’ Cup. The Champions League, then, has become the long-awaited dream of City’s fans, players and owner, who have developed a taste for silverware.
By contrast, Liverpool, who last year claimed a sixth European Cup, are awaiting a maiden Premier League title amid a top-flight drought now in its 30th year.
Both teams currently hold what the other desires, but – given Liverpool are eight points clear domestically – it is entirely feasible that the pair switch trophies this season.
It is also not unlikely that they will stand in each other’s way. Liverpool and City are the bookmakers’ favourites to be first and second in the Premier League and reach the Champions League final.
So far, Guardiola has fared little better than his predecessors on Europe’s biggest stage, suffering back-to-back quarter-final defeats to English opposition, Liverpool and Tottenham, in the last two seasons.
Those defeats raised questions about the Spaniard’s judgement, with his decision to play a 4-2-3-1 with two holding midfielders – Fernandinho and Ilkay Gundogan – in both of those ties, rather than his tried and trusted 4-1-4-1 with two creative midfielders, backfiring.
City’s best shot
But the margins in cup football are so fine and there were invariably other factors at play. Liverpool were sensational as they won the first leg at Anfield 3-0, while against Spurs there was a missed penalty from Aguero and no shortage of drama involving the video assistant referee.
Nonetheless, it is hard not to have higher expectations for a group that has won so much, led by a manager with 27 honours himself, including two European Cups from his spell in charge of Barcelona.
Into the fourth year of the Guardiola project – he has never stayed in a previous coaching role for longer – and with the league seemingly slipping away, it feels almost as though it is win or bust.
Perhaps that will provide added incentive to win the Champions League, while the receding likelihood of retaining their Premier League crown may even aid City’s efforts abroad.
They are unbeaten in Europe so far this campaign and can top their group with a win at the Etihad Stadium tonight, although that will not guarantee them an easy round of 16 tie, with Real Madrid and neighbours Atletico looking likely to finish second in their groups.
With Bayern Munich, Madrid and Juventus all enduring personnel changes on and off the pitch in recent months and Barcelona growing over-reliant on Lionel Messi, the gates have opened for City to go further into this year’s competition than ever before.