Champions League success for Man City could cause more harm than good

Just imagine that despite the prospect of a two-year ban from European competition from the start of next season, Manchester City are able to blank out all of the noise and win the Champions League for the first time at the end of this campaign.

On the one hand, it would be the ultimate achievement and crowning glory of Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan’s transformation of the club. As City chairman Khaldoon al Mubarak told ESPN in an exclusive interview in August 2018: “We should win it [Champions League] in the next 10 years, and obviously, sooner rather than later.”

But if UEFA’s ban sticks and City spend the next two years unable to compete for European club football’s biggest prize, then Champions League glory in May in Istanbul could prove to be a poisoned chalice rather than the Holy Grail. All of a sudden, the likes of Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne, Aymeric Laporte and the rest of City’s superstars — not to mention manager Pep Guardiola — would have scaled the highest mountain at the club, only to find that the next two years will offer nothing more challenging than a domestic scene they have already conquered more than once.

City find themselves in a catch-22 situation. If they win the Champions League, there is nothing else for their array of stars to achieve at the club, and such glory could trigger an exodus sparked by ambition and harsh financial realities.

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As Guardiola’s team prepare to face Real Madrid on Wednesday in Spain in the first leg of their round-of-16 Champions League tie, the City hierarchy are battling to overturn the ban imposed by UEFA earlier this month, after the club was found to have committed “serious breaches” of club licensing and financial fair play regulations. Ferran Soriano, City’s chief executive, has claimed that the charges against the club are “simply not true,” and an appeal has been lodged with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

It is a fight that will rumble on for some time off the pitch, and it is one City cannot afford to lose. But, paradoxically, winning the Champions League this season — in the club’s ninth attempt — threatens to bring everything crashing down in the dressing room if CAS upholds the UEFA ban.

There are two strands to the battle facing City in the event of a failure to overturn the ban. Even if City are able to have it reduced to one season on appeal, they will still have to find a way of keeping their squad together.

First of all, they must deal with the financial implications of missing out on the funds that come with participating in the Champions League. Despite being eliminated at the quarterfinal stage by Tottenham last season, City still banked €93.24 million (£77.98m) in Champions League prize money. If they were to win this season’s competition, they would expect to earn a similar figure to the €111.1m (£99.92m) taken home by Liverpool following their success in winning their sixth European Cup in June.

Missing out on close to £80m-per-season for the next two years, plus the loss of gate money that would come with staging no European fixtures, would leave a major hole in City’s finances, and it is not one that could be filled by donations from the pockets of Sheikh Mansour. If City are forced to operate with an £80m shortfall for each of the next two seasons, they will struggle to fund an annual wage bill that stood at £315.3m in their 2018-19 financial report.

Although they have sensibly tied their key players to long-term contracts — Sterling (2023), De Bruyne (2023), Laporte (2025), Bernardo Silva (2025) — the flip side of having them secured for so long is that the club have to be able to pay their wages. Being without at least £160m over the next two years will place a strain on City, just as it would hurt any club.

Secondly, even if City can ride the financial storm for two years without Champions League money, the players might not be so keen to miss out on the biggest games in the most glamorous competition.

Sterling’s flirtation with Real last week, in an interview with Spanish newspaper AS, was probably a sign of things to come. The England forward insisted that he is “really happy” at City but was quick to add that Real are a “fantastic club.” Maybe Sterling was just being polite, playing to his audience, but timing is everything, and with a cloud hanging over City right now, it left the impression of a player keeping his options open.

But why shouldn’t Sterling, or any of his teammates, play that game? City have been fantastic for Sterling, De Bruyne, Sergio Aguero, David Silva and many others in recent years. They have given them a platform to win big and earn big, and if they help City win the Champions League this season, it will be mission accomplished in every sense.

That is when the problems will start: When a player has nothing left to achieve and the biggest challenges are taken away from him, it is inevitable that he will look for something more appealing.

City might end up winning the Champions League this season, and it might prove to be more trouble than it is worth.

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