Manchester City aim to take another step closer on Tuesday to the one title that has eluded them – the Champions League.
Boss Pep Guardiola says he will be judged on success in the competition but does this year represent their best chance of becoming European champions?
“There’s not an outstanding team” in this season’s tournament says pundit Chris Sutton, while football journalist Rory Smith feels the competition is “not as daunting” as in previous years.
City, second in the Premier League, will secure a place in the quarter-finals if they win their last-16 second leg at home to RB Leipzig after a 1-1 draw in Germany.
Bayern Munich, Chelsea, AC Milan and Benfica are the teams already through, while Real Madrid hold a 5-2 advantage over Liverpool, with Italian sides Napoli and Inter Milan leading after their first-leg matches against Eintracht Frankfurt and Porto respectively.
Of the teams left in the competition, only Bayern, Napoli and Benfica are top of their domestic leagues.
“This season is very odd,” added former Blackburn striker Sutton on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Monday Night Club.
“If you had a guess who you would make favourites for the Champions League, would we not all say Napoli at the moment?
“But I don’t think we’ve seen Manchester City at their best, that could be ominous, and they find ways to win.
“It’s as open as it’s ever been and there’s not a really outstanding team where in previous seasons you could argue differently.”
Smith, of the New York Times, added: “It feels like the field is a bit more open and slightly unfamiliar, and to be honest, better for it.
“Real, City and Bayern are the three established powers and looking how the field is falling will be thinking they are the three outstanding teams.
“City should probably be favourites and will be thinking ‘Barcelona aren’t there, Liverpool aren’t there, Arsenal, the form team in the Premier League, weren’t in the competition, it is not quite as daunting as it would be normally’.
“City should be thinking ‘this is a really good opportunity to right the wrongs of the last six years’.”
I’ll be judged on Champions League record – Guardiola
City have won nine major trophies since Guardiola took charge in 2016, but have never been European champions and he was asked whether his spell would be defined by success in Europe’s premier cup competition.
“It doesn’t mean I agree with it but, absolutely, I’ll be judged on that,” said the 52-year-old Spaniard.
“Before my first game in the Champions League [with City], people said I was here to win it.
“I said ‘what?’ I don’t know, but I accept it. As much as I go through, it’s not going to change.”
The closest they have come to Champions League glory was when they reached the 2021 final, where they lost 1-0 to Chelsea.
A late fightback by Real Madrid prevented City returning to the final last season, but in Guardiola’s first four seasons at Etihad Stadium they failed to progress past the quarter-finals.
City were upset by French sides Monaco and Lyon, while suffering agonising exits against Premier League rivals Liverpool and Tottenham, with the latter coming after VAR played a big role in the outcome of a thrilling second leg at the Etihad.
In November, Guardiola, who won the Champions League twice as Barcelona coach, signed a two-year contract extension to 2025 and said he wanted “to stay and continue fighting for trophies”.
“We’ve not won it but we’ve done really well in the Champions League,” said City midfielder Kevin de Bruyne.
“I know people base everything on only winning but I feel there’s been a lot of circumstances in these kind of games – the Madrid game, the Tottenham game where we deserved to go through but didn’t. These are moments in games where these things happen.
“Obviously I want to win it but I know that, as long as we don’t, I’ll come here and get the same questions and I’m fine because people judge you on that.
“We just try to win these games and be the best people and team we can be.”
Guardiola tells De Bruyne to focus on ‘simple things’
De Bruyne has registered 17 assists in 34 appearances this season, three more than the two-time Premier League player of the season managed in 45 games last term.
But Guardiola has started the Belgium midfielder on the bench in four of City’s past nine top-flight games and has told the 31-year-old to focus on the “simple things” to get back to his best.
“It’s been a difficult season for all of us, me included, [because of] the World Cup and many things,” said Guardiola.
“I’m not going to discover Kevin. Kevin has an ability to do it. What I’d like – I spoke many times to him – is [for him] to go to the easy principles and do it well.
“He has an incredible ability to make an assist, to score goals and see passes like no-one else, but I always have belief they will increase and will get better when [players do] the simple things…
“When the simple things are done perfectly and we are in the right moment, the actions to create incredible passes that he – only he – can find, it will be easier, it will be better.”