MARTIN SAMUEL: The stars are aligning for Man City in Champions League

MARTIN SAMUEL: The stars are aligning for Manchester City in the Champions League. With the European aristocrats in disarray, Pep Guardiola has no reason to feel intimidated

  • Manchester City’s year in Europe? Well we’ve heard that one before
  • But this isn’t just about them, it’s about the rest of their European competitors
  • The self-appointed aristocracy of European football are weaker this season
  • Should Pep Guardiola’s league leaders have any reason to feel intimidated? 

Manchester City’s year. We have heard that one before. It was their year in Europe last season, remember, with three one-off ties at neutral venues standing between them and the trophy, starting with a quarter-final against Lyon, promptly lost.

The competition before that, it was also City’s year. Tottenham in the quarter-finals, 16 points separating the teams when they were knocked out.

Then there was 2016-17, Pep Guardiola’s first season in charge. He had been brought in to land the biggest European prize, it was said, except City were comprehensively beaten by Monaco in the last 16. 

Manchester City have no reason to feel intimidated in this season’s Champions League

It’s hard to imagine Pep Guardiola will get a swing at a better chance of victory in Europe

So, yes, Manchester City’s year. Begin eye-rolling sequence now.

Yet this isn’t just about them. It’s about the rest. The great leagues, the elite clubs, of Europe. In this of all seasons, they are a sorry-looking bunch.

The self-appointed aristocracy — Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus — are weak. Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain appear the best of it, but should City have any reason to feel intimidated? 

Liverpool have failed to beat Southampton, Burnley and Brighton this year, but they had no problem with RB Leipzig, the team that are within two points of Munich at the top of the Bundesliga.

It’s a poor league these days. Munich pick off their rivals’ best players and everyone seems content with that.

Leipzig have just sold them Dayot Upamecano, their promising centre half. Robert Lewandowski came from Borussia Dortmund, Manuel Neuer and Leon Goretzka from Schalke. These were clubs with Champions League ambitions of their own, once. It’s not like Munich picking off Benjamin Pavard from Stuttgart in a relegation season. 

City have been here before in Europe, like when they were knocked out by Spurs in 2019

Imagine if every English club sold to City. Even Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea. The willingness to feed Munich has made the Bundesliga uncompetitive. 

Munich should be streets ahead of Leipzig by now. What does it say that they are not? As for PSG, they are the conquerors of Barcelona, and that is impressive. But they are not on their second coach of the season because it was going well.

PSG are currently third in supposedly a one-horse race, four points off Lille and a point behind Lyon. They have lost six matches already this season and last weekend Monaco completed the double over them. They were beaten by Manchester United and Leipzig, too.

And yes, Kylian Mbappe is quite brilliant — but no team wins in Europe without coming up against world-class players. Should those at City who have won 18 straight be daunted by the third-best team in France right now?

This is an opportunity. And not only for City. When Chelsea drew Atletico Madrid in December, they looked doomed.

Atletico were already established as the premier team in LaLiga and as time passed that notion only grew stronger. When Luis Suarez scored twice in a 4-2 win at Cadiz on January 31, it sent Atletico 10 points clear.

By then, Frank Lampard had already lost his job at Chelsea. Perhaps the prospect of facing Atletico contributed. It certainly played a part in Luiz Felipe Scolari’s dismissal in 2009. Chelsea had drawn Juventus in the Champions League knock-out stage and Roman Abramovich was increasingly convinced that the tie could not be won with the Brazilian in charge.

He sacked him on February 9 and brought in Guus Hiddink, who not only eliminated Juventus but took Chelsea to a semi-final, where they were ultimately undone by Barcelona and a rogue performance from referee Tom Henning Ovrebo.

Abramovich will no doubt feel happier with Thomas Tuchel in Madrid, but Atletico have changed in recent weeks, too. That 10-point lead is now three and Atletico have won one in four, including Saturday’s 2-0 defeat at home by Levante. Is LaLiga the force it was? 

In 2017 City were comprehensively beaten by Monaco at the last-16 stage of the competition

Barcelona and Real Madrid are certainly not, while Sevilla lost their recent Champions League match at home to Borussia Dortmund and this season’s surprise package, Real Sociedad, were soundly beaten by Manchester United in the Europa League.

Yet none of these clubs — Chelsea, Manchester United, Dortmund — have City’s spark. Given that Tammy Abraham and Olivier Giroud have scored 10 league goals between them this season, Tuchel must wish he had devised a way of operating with a false nine like Guardiola.

Equally, there will be many coaches in Europe who envy City’s consistent defence — not least Jurgen Klopp. City have conceded just 15 Premier League goals this season — 10 fewer than their nearest rivals Chelsea — and a third of them came in one match, against Leicester in September.

So it is not the 18 wins that convince, more a wider alignment of stars. A defence that works, a plan to overcome the absence of Sergio Aguero, a kindly draw in the last 16 — Borussia Monchengladbach are eighth in the Bundesliga — and the elite of the European game in a state of flux and disarray.

Of course, as PSG discovered last year, if there were only two teams in the Champions League and it was just you and Bayern Munich it would still be a damned hard tournament to win. 

But no one has to play Barcelona at a full Nou Camp, or Liverpool with Virgil van Dijk at the back, and if Porto and PSG can hold out nobody will have to play Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, either.

City’s year? Feel free to mock but it’s hard to imagine they will ever get a swing at a better one.

Building Standards should be called on ‘Turkish Wall’ Kabak! 

If someone built a wall like Liverpool’s Ozan Kabak, you would get building standards round

Alberto Aquilani had his own banner on arriving at Anfield. Fluttering in the Kop, it depicted him in a noble pose, dressed in body armour, the Colosseum visible in the background. 

‘A hero will rise,’ read the message. Aquilani having turned out to be more lion snack than Gladiator, the banner was quietly taken down.

There is, as yet, no dedication to Ozan Kabak, local artists having wisely decided not to riff on his nickname: the Turkish Wall.

He’s only 20, he’s on loan, and coming into a team with ongoing traumas in the heart of defence. 

But if someone built you a wall like that, you’d get building standards round.

Rush to remove meritocracy makes game a saturated bore

The extra Champions League matches are coming. We have known it for years. That is football’s answer to everything. More. Bloated competitions, increased entries, extra games. 

The European Championship is looser, weaker and less interesting than it has ever been, what was the UEFA Cup is now the Europa League and unwatchable until the knockout stages and the World Cup will go the same way. 

The Champions League group stage has been made moribund and repetitious by protectionism, so it is no surprise the elite clubs are pushing for change, as it becomes less appealing in the broadcast market.

So more matches, in a different system? If you wish. But the historical wildcards should be resisted at all costs. What competition would benefit from the addition of lame ducks like Arsenal or Tottenham right now? 

What competition would benefit from the addition of lame ducks like Arsenal or Tottenham?

Between them, they have lost to more than half the teams in the Premier League this season. What purpose would elevation serve?

Freeze domestic competitions now and the wildcard beneficiaries would be Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund, who have the highest coefficients of teams failing to qualify automatically through league places. That doesn’t sound so terrible. Yet where is the incentive to improve if, even in a bad year, Champions League football is attained? 

Why would Liverpool’s venture capitalist owners be moved to invest if mediocrity still paid dividends? This thinking put Arsenal on their downward slope. Arsene Wenger got them to fourth each year and that was enough, so they drifted. And drifted. 

And now they are 10th and happy to lose at home to Manchester City. Football excites and moves forward because of meritocracy. Remove that, it is accountancy. Who watches that?

Tokyo chiefs must learn lessons from Melbourne fiasco

Ultimately, the Australian Open produced the right results. Men’s champion: Novak Djokovic. Women’s champion: Naomi Osaka. The best two players in the world. It didn’t throw up fluke results and asterisks will not be required.

Given that the tournament lost at least £56million, however, and that at the closing ceremony the crowd reacted negatively to both the mention of the vaccine rollout and to praise for the local Victorian government for getting the competition on, the question remains: was it worth it?

Certainly, this should be asked more urgently of the Tokyo Olympics, whose organisers have been monitoring events in Melbourne closely. Craig Tiley, the Australian Open’s tournament director, says that reserves of £45m have been exhausted and a loan of £25m taken out just to finance a tennis tournament. 

The Australian Open closing ceremony crowd reacted negatively to mention of vaccine rollout

The logistics of an Olympics are vastly more complex, not least for Covid testing. ‘I’ve seen the playbook for the Olympics,’ said Tiley. ‘We had a far more rigorous programme than is being proposed. I love the Olympic Games, but with the experience we had, I can’t see it working.’

His words should serve as a warning. There is a lot of can-do positivity around the Games, a lot of blowhard optimism from hosts and organisers who are buried deep financially and politically. 

Yet Japan’s vaccine rollout is delayed until April due to limited supplies and those heading to Tokyo come from every continent, with all the attendant implications for variants and spread. The Australian Open went behind closed doors mid-tournament, as Melbourne was plunged into lockdown. 

Would Japan be prepared for such extreme measures and what of the strict quarantine procedures that were required for entry to Australia? When Tiley says he cannot see it working — does he mean logistically or safely? Either is a worry, but the second could be catastrophic.

Foxes trio are best value buys 

Much debate about the greatest value signings in Premier League history. My three, in no particular order: Jamie Vardy, N’Golo Kante and Riyad Mahrez. All went to a club, Leicester, who were never meant to win the league, indeed, the modern domestic competition was set up so Leicester never could.

Yet, somehow they did, and that trio were particularly brilliant all season. Their performances trump even game-changers such as Eric Cantona and Dennis Bergkamp, or Vincent Kompany who came when Manchester City were not a force but was instrumental in making them so. 

Kompany’s City had enormous resources behind them by the time he won the league, though. Leicester were still the club that began their campaign at odds of 5,000-1. It remains the greatest feat in the history of English football.

Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez are two of the greatest value signings in Premier League history

Djokovic proves greatness in Melbourne 

Novak Djokovic says he answered his critics by winning a ninth Australian Open title. He might mean, in particular, Nick Kyrgios, who had his typical Grand Slam. 

Played a few shots on social media, played a few in the press conferences, had the odd crash-bang-wallop crowd-pleasing match and then lost to the first good opponent. It’s a cameo. It’s slight.

What Djokovic does has substance. In Melbourne, he overcame an abdominal injury, altered the way he played and leaned on other strengths in his game to win. It was no act. 

His team booked Covid tests before every match he played, so they could exit quickly when he lost. Until after the final these were not needed. And then they went home with his 18th Grand Slam trophy. That’s a player. 

BBC miss a trick 

Normal service is resumed. England’s one-day series with India next month will be shown on Sky. So back behind the paywall it goes. The BBC blew it. 

They had their chance to outbid Channel 4 for the Test coverage and failed. Still, there is always the cage fighting on iPlayer to look forward to. 

What latter day John Arlott will they get to call that, one wonders? 

The BBC had the chance to outbid Channel 4 for coverage of England in India but failed 

Fulham proof the system is failing 

When Fulham were last promoted they spent £100million and got relegated to much mockery. 

Beating Sheffield United on Saturday, six of Scott Parker’s starting XI were loans and another came on as a substitute.

Fulham have broken no rules and many will think this is more sensible than the previous plan but the system isn’t right. 

‘Being offensive is an offence,’ reads Merseyside Police’s slogan against hate crime. 

Must have been a very inoffensive bricking the Manchester City bus received on its way to Anfield that time, then, because no one was ever arrested. 

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