There’s been a theory thrown around football for some time now that to win the Champions League, you have to understand the Champions League. It’s a brutal competition. Uncompromising, relentless and chaotic. Until you’ve felt the cruel sting of European football’s leading cup competition, I’m not sure you can really fully comprehend what it takes to win it.
I can say with confidence that I’m pretty sure Manchester City have well and truly felt that pain.
So are they ready to win it? Yeah, I think they are. Does it mean they will? Well, obviously not. Inter are excellent. European football is chaos incarnate. It’s just one game and anything can happen during 90 minutes, and other such cliches. But this is beside the point – watching Pep Guardiola’s side this year has left me certain that they are now ready to take that final step. If they do it, Champions League glory would have been earned, unquestionably.
FT | 🔴 3-1 (6-6) 🔵
— Manchester City (@ManCity) March 15, 2017
It would have been a long time coming too. Pain has followed City around in this competition like an unwanted, needy companion. Unavoidable and always there, nagging away. Monaco, Liverpool, the hopelessness of Lyon, the last minute heartbreaks of Spurs and Real Madrid. The Chelsea no-show. There’s no sugarcoating it, it’s been pretty miserable at times watching City snatch defeat from jaws of victory in a competition that, on paper at least, they were more than capable of excelling in.
Of course City are not the first team to have been fortunate to have some of the best players in the world and still come up short time and time again – and they won’t the be last either. That’s the Champions League for you. It does this to teams. It waves the most tempting of prizes in your face, then snatches it away before you even realise what’s happened. Ecstasy to misery within seconds, with the whole world watching and nowhere to hide.
But this is where that pain comes into it. Pressure makes diamonds. An awful lot of pressure to be exact. The kind of enormous pressure that Manchester City experience every single year.
74. Simply stunning! ✨
— Manchester City (@ManCity) May 9, 2023
The wonderful thing about being at the top of the game as a footballer, the adulation and trophies aside, is that you’re surrounded by pressure. The expectation that City’s players are under every single season forms them. It shapes them and alters their personalities, their game and maybe even their own world view. When you’re as good as Manchester City are, people demand more of you. Finishing second is a failure. Losing a Champions League final is a failure. Even this Premier League and FA Cup double would been seen by some, quite remarkably, as not enough.
But this is City’s reality. Every year, the biggest of games, the biggest of expectations. Pressure, pushing down on them. Always.
But the very best don’t just accept this, they thrive under it. Do you wilt under the pressure and your own past experiences, or do you embrace them? Do you shy run away from the challenge and seek a move to another club? Or do you stay and face it? It must be tempting of course to try and lock these memories away forever in some darkened recess of your mind, but I’m not sure that’s what winners do. The best use it as fuel. They remember and they learn.
THREE IN A ROW. FIVE IN SIX. SEVEN IN TWELVE.
MAN CITY LIFT THE PREMIER LEAGUE TROPHY ONCE AGAIN 🏆 pic.twitter.com/Fx6t27Jgh8
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) May 21, 2023
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that if they finally do win the Champions League, it will be in a season where they also complete a treble. Possibly the best Manchester City side ever could likely come after years of being stuck inside the Champions League pressure cooker on full heat. Yet another diamond formed under familiar circumstances.
I guess there’s only so much pain you can go through in one competition until you finally just don’t care. You switch off to that pain. You become unafraid of it, and you use it instead. Look at Pep Guardiola’s demeanour over the past year and tell me he hasn’t changed. He’s more relaxed, more philosophical and more at ease with who he is. He understands the beautiful, messy nature of football. Football doesn’t care if you’re the best side. It doesn’t care for your reputation. It will treat with you disdain but you will love it anyway. Pep understands this, and he also understands that there is a freedom that comes with failure.
Make no mistake, those losses will always be there, just hanging around in the back of their minds. That nagging doubt that there’s one box left unticked. The Champions League. The big one.
But this is a competition they’re so familiar with now that they know it as well as they know themselves. The Champions League has so few surprises left for this Manchester City side that they now approach it with a remarkable sense of confidence. What can it possibly throw at City that they haven’t already experienced? Last minute goals? Sure. Dodgy ref decisions? Okay mate. An underdog suddenly playing like prime Barcelona and knocking them out? Fine. Been there, done that. Still here, still winning things.
That’s the Champions League for you. Once you accept it, can it really hurt you anymore? Probably, but it becomes an awful lot less likely.
87. Goal for Lyon…
— Manchester City (@ManCity) August 15, 2020
There could even be some truth in an argument that suggests the Champions League has made this City side who they are. I’m honestly not sure that without all that misery Pep could have produced a side as good as this. Would City have even won three leagues in a row if they had tasted Champions League glory earlier in his reign? Would most of this side even be here anymore? Or Pep himself? We’ll never know of course, but it makes sense that a feeling of ‘unfinished business’ has kept this City side and Pep hungry, determined to go again and improve year on year.
I think it’s about time that we accept that just maybe we needed this. We all did. We’ve had it good over the past decade and a bit, witnessing football that I never thought I’d have the honour of watching during my lifetime supporting this club. It’s been that good. It’s been incredible, astonishing, mesmerising – but you learn more about yourself from defeat than you ever will from victory. We needed this Champions League toil to grow, not just as a side, but as a club. Maybe even as a fanbase too. It’s been horrible, but it’s been necessary.
City fans have always had a cagey relationship with this competition, and that will no doubt carry on for so many of the fanbase, but personally for the first time as a fan, I can hand on heart say that I really, really want this. More than anything.
It’s always been a bonus. The cherry on top of the most beautiful of Premier League cakes. Now though, after all those years being haunted by our past failures, it’s closer than ever, and I can’t even imagine just how sweet it will feel if City finally win it. That pain has left us ready as fans, and most importantly, it’s left this City side ready too. Will they do it? Once again, I don’t know, but the one thing I can say for certain is that they’ll never be more prepared as they are now.