Manchester City have hit form in the League, Champions League and FA Cup, but that doesn’t stop many of their supporters looking back with some regrets.
That Bill Shankly quote about people thinking football was a matter of life and death, but he disagrees and believes it to be far more important than that, springs to mind. For Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, the most important choices were the most difficult to make and arguably the hardest for their fans to fathom.
On October 26 2016, currently in the midst of a run of 6 games without a win, Pep’s worst as a manager, City faced bitter rivals United in the EFL (League) Cup and opted to play 7 players not in the starting XI including 4 players under the age of 20.
United played their best team, City didn’t. United went on to win the competition, City went home. So the story goes. Now, for Pep, the issue wasn’t a lack of respect for the competition or his rivals, and believe you me, there’s no love lost between himself and United’s Mourinho. No, instead, with two other fixtures in the space of that week, one in the Premier League and the other the Champions League, Pep had to make a sacrifice and he made it.
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For Manchester City fans, it was a bitter pill to swallow. Likely more so now. As Zlatan Ibrahimovic rose, unmarked, to nod in the late, late winner in the EFL Cup final against Southampton, there was a sense of resignation amongst the Blues’ faithful, but also perhaps regret the situation even came about. See, Jose’s side didn’t really have any tough opposition as they made their way to the final, City excepted. It was Pep’s job to stop them. “Who cares about winning a cup, just as long as United don’t!” Much more important than life and death, you see.
Times, however, have changed. Guardiola’s men roared to an emphatic 5-3 first leg victory, coming from behind twice, over Monaco in the last 16 of the Champions League last week. Further, City’s dismal spell in the League has ended and victories have started to accumulate, though they sit some 11 points behind leaders Chelsea, they have a game in hand and yet meet the frontrunners before the season’s out. In both cases, League and Champions League, City progressing seems unlikely, but not unthinkable.
Pep is to be commended for making such a difficult decision, at a time when his side desperately needed a win. Had Manchester City ultimately lost in the league and failed to beat Barcelona, as they did, then they would be now languishing outside the top four with no Champions League future to entice them. With that being the case, the League Cup likely would have provided little solace and all the more so if United had won the match regardless.
For many City fans though, it remains unacceptable. This in my view is tunnel-vision and a hallmark of a small club with little aspirations. Indeed, this is the Spurs mentality. Doesn’t matter how bad you are as long as you finish above Arsenal. For City, a good derby win and progression in a minor cup used to be a central tenet to a positive season. Now things work on a different level.
City’s ownership brought in Pep, by his own admission, to take the club to “the next level”. When you’ve done all you can domestically, that statement really only means one thing: international success. A Champions League trophy and an establishment of Manchester City as one of the big boys, a force to be reckoned with in world football, another Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich. This is what Pep was hired to bring, this is the choice he had to make that night.
The age-old saying that sometimes perfect is the enemy of good, rings true. Ideally, Manchester City would see off their rivals and come out trumps in the other competitions too, but the risk was too great and Guardiola hedged his bets on the bigger payoffs. His gamble has, thus far, paid off better than many anticipated and there remains much for the ardent Blue to be hopeful for. Certainly much more than the United fan has, at least. Small mindedness and tunnel vision it may be, but for most of the Etihad faithful, that in and of itself is worth as much as a trophy and more.