Manchester City’s quest to finally conquer Europe resumes on Wednesday when Pep Guardiola’s men travel to RB Leipzig, but all is not well for the English champions on or off the field.
Meanwhile, Jurgen Klopp hopes Liverpool have turned the corner just in time for Real Madrid’s visit to Anfield to play the first leg of their Champions League last-16 clash – a repeat of last season’s final.
City appeared to have laid down a marker in the Premier League title race by beating leaders Arsenal 3-1 away last week, only to then throw away two points by conceding late to draw 1-1 at Nottingham Forest on Saturday.
They are also playing under a cloud after being charged with more than 100 breaches of financial rules by the Premier League, dating back to the 2009/10 season.
Defender Kyle Walker described City’s sloppiness in relinquishing top spot in the Premier League at the weekend as “unacceptable”.
“Sometimes it’s football and sometimes it’s emotion,” he said. “Every game should be treated the same – like a cup final.”
A two-point deficit at the top of the table could turn into five should Arsenal win their game in hand against struggling Everton.
A lack of consistency in City’s performances is troubling Guardiola ahead of his side’s return to action in the competition they most crave.
City have never won the Champions League, while Guardiola, who won the trophy twice as manager of Barcelona, has not done so since 2011, his penultimate season at the Camp Nou.
The signing of Erling Haaland was expected to be the final piece in solving City’s puzzle in Europe.
The Norwegian has delivered the goals expected of him, with 32 in all competitions. Yet Haaland’s arrival is one of the factors used to explain a dip in City’s collective standards this season.
The defending champions have dropped 20 points already in 24 games, compared with 21 points in the whole of the 2021/22 campaign.
‘Going after it’
Despite Haaland’s haul, City had scored more goals as a team at this stage last season.
Defensively they also look more exposed – an issue not helped by Guardiola’s willingness to let Joao Cancelo join Bayern Munich on loan, leaving him without a natural left-back.
Nathan Ake, Aymeric Laporte, Rico Lewis and even creative midfielder Bernardo Silva have been shunted out to do a job on the left side of defence in the past two weeks alone.
Guardiola said he was heartened by City’s display at Forest despite a lack of killer instinct that cost them two points.
However, he has not been slow to call out his players since the World Cup break for a lack of hunger and desire to remain on top in England, which is an uncharacteristic approach for the former Barca and Bayern Munich coach.
Finding such motivation for the Champions League should not be difficult. Third-choice goalkeeper Scott Carson is the only member of Guardiola’s squad to have won the competition previously, when he was at Liverpool.
“We’re coming after it,” goalkeeper Ederson said of City’s quest to win the Champions League.
“I think we’re a group of great quality and that shows how much the club has developed over the last five or six years, with Premier League titles, Carabao (League) Cups, FA Cups, Community Shields.
“So this title is what the club needs. It’s what we athletes need and it’s what Guardiola needs here at the club, too. This year, we’re going to try. We’re going after it.”
There could also be the extra incentive of not knowing for sure when City might get another chance to play in the Champions League due to the score of charges on financial breaches earlier this month.
Should City be found guilty, a heavy points penalty or even relegation could be on the cards for a club that has played in Europe’s elite competition for 12 straight seasons.
Repeat of last year’s final
Madrid were crowned European champions for the 14th time in Paris after a 1-0 win over Liverpool in a match overshadowed by organisational failings on the part of Uefa and the French authorities that put fans’ safety at risk.
Liverpool, who narrowly missed out on an unprecedented quadruple last season, have suffered a hangover during the current campaign, out of both domestic cups and 19 points behind Premier League leaders Arsenal.
But back-to-back wins over Everton and Newcastle have lifted the mood around Anfield and given Klopp’s men a shot at qualifying for the Champions League next season via a top-four finish in the English top flight.
“It’s the Champions League, it’s one of the biggest games in the world. It will be a top football game and I’m really happy we can play it now,” Klopp said at his pre-match press conference on Monday.
“If it had been four weeks ago maybe it would’ve been different, but life is all about timing and maybe we found our feet right in time for this game.
“Now we have these two results and hopefully we can build on it, but we need to play two super games to get through.”
Madrid have been Liverpool’s conquerors in the Champions League three times in the previous five seasons.
The European champions won the 2018 final in Kyiv 3-1 and by the same score on aggregate in a quarterfinal tie between the sides in 2020/2021.
But Carlo Ancelotti’s men rode their luck to win in Paris, with goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois picking up the man-of-the-match award for a series of stunning saves.
“We played this final in Paris and I didn’t watch it back since then until this weekend,” said Klopp. “Now I know why I didn’t watch it back. It was proper torture because we played a good game and could have won the game.
“They scored a decisive goal, we didn’t and it was the reason. You could see in this game how experienced Madrid is. How little they are fussed when the other team has chances.
“They don’t lose confidence for one second, that is what you can learn from them.”