For Manchester City, it felt good to be back home. Under an English summer sun the goals flowed like warm beer. Their 5-0 win against Saudi Newcastle felt as comforting and familiar as an old pair of slippers.
City have the title in their grasp and Pep Guardiola characterised it as a victory for the little guy.
“Everyone in this country support Liverpool, the media and everyone, of course because Liverpool has an incredible history behind in Europe competitions. Not in Premier Leagues, because [they] won one in 30 years, but it’s not a problem at all. The situation is what it is, we have to do nine points, maybe six right now...”
We all know Sheikh Mansour isn't paying Guardiola €20 million a year to dispense Buddhist-sounding self-help talk. Guardiola is a world-renowned coaching talent
Guardiola was showing that he has absorbed City’s underdog mentality, which abides even now that they are the top-earning club in the world. Last season they made €70 million more in sponsorship than Liverpool, a remarkable effort by their sales department given Guardiola’s point that Liverpool are much more widely supported.
Last Wednesday City had again snatched defeat from the jaws of European victory, and on Friday Guardiola had spent a rather abstract and philosophical press conference trying to explain why that was basically okay.
He was unhappy to hear that certain people out there had been using the F-word about his players and himself.
“When the people say, this group of players or this manager don’t win the Champions League, they will be failures – I accept it. I completely disagree. Completely.”
Sheikh Mansour, Guardiola believes, has a more holistic view of “success”, which involves playing well and staying competitive right to the end of the season, rather than fixating on winning any trophy in particular.
Guardiola ruminated on how the biggest games are decided by the narrowest margins. What if Courtois had not saved Grealish’s shot? What if Ederson had not saved from Atletico Madrid’s Correa in the previous round? The implication seemed to be: why do people care so much, when there is virtually no difference between success and... what we should perhaps delicately refer to as ‘not-success’? What does it really mean to ‘win’ a trophy anyway?
“In football, in our lives, sometimes you do everything and you do not achieve it. What is the problem with that?” Guardiola asked. There’s no problem with it, not really. Nobody is suggesting it is a crime for a football team not to achieve its objectives, and if craving is the root of all suffering, it’s unwise to obsess about objectives in any case.
Guardiola sounded like he is working hard not to allow his self-esteem to be dictated by City’s European results.
“I cannot live one year thinking my happiness will be... I know the people outside of here demand just Champions League, Champions League, Champions League, Champions League. We know it.”
He went on to predict rather bitterly that when City eventually did win the Champions League, everyone would say it was because of their money.
And on this last point he was right. But we all know Sheikh Mansour isn’t paying Guardiola €20 million a year to dispense Buddhist-sounding self-help talk. Guardiola is a world-renowned coaching talent who is supposed to be uniquely positioned to draw peak performance from one of the most expensive squads of players ever assembled. Yet again and again.
Why does this matter? City are about to win a fourth league title in five years – why should it be so important for them to win the Champions League?
Simply because you can’t be considered a great team without it. Can you think of any exceptions? Borussia Moenchengladbach in the 1970s, maybe? Maradona’s Napoli? The Arsenal of Wenger, Bergkamp and Henry? All were admired in their own time but history asks: if these teams really were great as opposed to very good, why didn’t they prove it in Europe?
In reality, the biggest events in sport always involve the pressure of seizing the moment and performing "right here, right now"
They are ultimately remembered as supporting acts to the truly great teams of their day: the Bayern Munich of Gerd Müller and Beckenbauer, Sacchi’s Dutch Milan, Ferguson’s Treble-era Manchester United – and the difference is the Champions Cup.
Moreover, domestic dominance uncrowned by European success just makes your league look bad. Why are the Lisbon Lions remembered as a great team, while the two other Scottish sides to win nine league titles in a row are regarded as morbid symptoms of Scottish football’s decline?
Because they were the only ones to win the European Cup.
Last Friday, Guardiola suggested a plausible theory as to why his team plays better in the league than in the Champions League knockouts.
“The players, when you play in the Premier League, they know they have another game, and another game, and another game. In this competition it’s... [taps watch] a question of time. And it happen immediately, and it’s... ah!”
In other words the difference is pressure. City are serenely and supremely confident in their ability to win eight games out of every 10, to take 2.5 points out of every 3, to emerge as the top team after 38 matches over nine months. But in the Champions League knockouts, the task is: win this one game in particular. And that’s when their wheels start falling off.
Kevin De Bruyne told City's YouTube channel in March: "For me it's the league and then the Champions League, in that order. Because the league gives you the consistency you need as a player to do it all the time. The Champions League, sometimes it feels like you need to go through periods where you have very good form, and if you are good on the day it's important."
De Bruyne sounded a bit like Roy Keane, who told Jamie Carragher on Sky last month that he would rather win "the league title, every day of the week, it's what you do week in, week out in terms of what you stand for as a player." (Keane has changed his tune since his 2002 autobiography, in which he says of his former United team-mate Jaap Stam: "Interestingly, there's a line in his book about the importance of winning the Premiership, how that was the one trophy he targeted every year. The wrong one.")
There is an implication here that a league campaign is a more legitimate test of a team’s quality than a knockout structure, as though there is something unreasonable about attaching too much importance to a one-off game in which anything could happen.
But what is the ultimate logic of this?
If ‘greatness’ is just another way of saying ‘consistency’, maybe leagues should introduce a continuous assessment component in which points are awarded for consistent good performances in training. What should be so special about ‘competitive’ ‘occasions’, when true excellence is a way of life that comes from within?
In reality, the biggest events in sport always involve the pressure of seizing the moment and performing “right here, right now”.
Until City learn how to deal with that pressure, they cannot be regarded as a great team.