By Peter Hall
MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) – Manchester City’s target this season will be to match Manchester United’s record of three successive Premier League titles but, despite manager Pep Guardiola playing down their Champions League ambitions, Europe could act as a distraction.
Guardiola’s side have been nothing short of dominant in the domestic league since the beginning of the 2017/18 campaign.
City amassed an incredible 198 points in those two seasons and broke the record for the most Premier League wins in 2017/18 before matching it last year, while plundering a record 163 goals in all competitions in 2018/19.
An unprecedented domestic treble was completed in emphatic style with a 6-0 romp over Watford in the FA Cup final in May, but for all their domestic success under Guardiola, there is still one major goal yet to be reached — continental glory.
“I’ve said before that for City to be where they want to be, I think they need to win the Champions League,” said the club’s England defender Kyle Walker.
“I think some of the players in the dressing room have achieved too much in their careers and done too much for football not to win the Champions League. So we owe it to them and ourselves.”
City again fell at the quarter-final stage in last season’s Champions League — this time to eventual runners-up Tottenham Hotspur. They have only reached the last four once in the competition’s history and have never competed in the final.
However, Guardiola tried to put the pursuit of Europe’s elite club trophy into perspective after City beat rivals Liverpool on penalties to win the Community Shield on Sunday.
“The Champions League is an important tournament, difficult to win,” he said. “But I don’t want to go to the casino and gamble everything I have in my pocket for seven games.
“I’d sign right now to do what we did last season again. Not winning the Champions League and four titles,” he added after City’s unprecedented domestic treble and Community Shield win.
In pursuit of further domestic dominance, and a tilt at European success, City have broken their transfer record to bring in Spanish defensive midfielder Rodri, with Guardiola looking to solve one of the few problem areas in the team.
“We knew it but today I can assure you we have an incredible holding midfielder for the next decade, or at least the years he will be here with a contract,” Guardiola said.
Fernandinho is vital to City’s system in the holding midfield role. When the Brazilian was missing last season City tried a variety of alternatives but did not look as solid.
Now, Guardiola believes he not only has a welcome addition in the short term, but Fernandinho’s long-term successor.
Pre-season brought some big wins, with the improved fitness of playmaker Kevin De Bruyne, who spent much of the last campaign in the treatment room, giving City a further boost.
“I have been a professional for 11 years now and had one season where I had some injuries,” De Bruyne said. “Now I feel good. I’m happy I could play a whole pre-season.”
Guardiola has also described young midfielder Phil Foden as the “most talented” player he has seen but there are fewer defensive options with club captain Vincent Kompany having left.
The challenge is set to be the same, though, with last season’s runners-up Liverpool likely to prioritise a first Premier League title having missed out by just a point before the consolation of clinching Champions League glory.
But, while a third straight league title for City to match United’s 2007-2009 run would be an incredible feat, Guardiola will be judged by how City fare in Europe where another failure is unlikely to sit well with the club’s ambitious owners.
(Reporting by Peter Hall; Editing by Ken Ferris)