Pep's right: Man City can't yet be considered Champions League contenders



Posted Wednesday, December 11, 2019 by Goal.com

Pep's right: Man City can't yet be considered Champions League contenders

The City manager has overseen three early exits in the Champions League and admitted this week that he is not putting his team along the favourites

Just 12 months ago, Manchester City were so unstoppable that a quadruple was a serious consideration.

Pep Guardiola's side went on to win the three domestic titles and had Raheem Sterling's injury-time goal in their quarter-final defeat to Tottenham stood, who knows if they could have added the Champions League as well.

As it was, the 94th-minute strike was ruled out after a VAR consultation and Spurs marched all the way to the final; City's ultimate ambition of adding Champions League glory eluding them for another year at least.

Rather than it being seen as a missed opportunity, the away-goals defeat was viewed more as a glitch in a competition they seemed destined to win sooner or later. The Premier League champions would be back for another serious challenge, among the favourites for that matter, and stronger than ever after three years of slow but steady improvement under Guardiola.

A seeded place in the last 16 come February is already secure as they go into the final group stage game against Dinamo Zagreb on Wednesday. Despite winning their place, a poor start to the season has left even Guardiola fear that a Champions League triumph now seems further away than ever.

The manager conceded after Saturday's surprise Manchester derby home defeat to United that they are not currently at the same level as the top sides in Europe, name-checking Liverpool, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus.

He maintains there is top quality in his squad, but their form - only two wins from their last seven matches and no clean sheets - will not frighten the giants of continental football.

Already 14 points behind Liverpool at the top of the Premier League, a third successive title seems beyond reach. That leaves the Champions League as the big prize but even the manager is not confident that City can turn around their performances before the knockout stages begin in February.

"Our game is there, but to reach this level we have to improve some departments - in the boxes," he said ahead of the game in Croatia. "Right now we are not ready but in February maybe we are better and after that anything can happen."

Despite a summer net spend of close to €100m, the squad appears weaker than the same time last year. Central defence has been the biggest problem all season, due to a serious knee injury to Aymeric Laporte and the failure to replace Vincent Kompany at the end of his trophy-laden spell at the Etihad.

That's had the knock-on effect of dragging Fernandinho out of the holding midfield role where he has excelled. Replacement Rodri has been thrust into becoming a regular starter rather than being eased in during his first season.

Left-back remains a problem. None of Benjamin Mendy, Oleksandr Zinchenko or new arrival Angelino have nailed down the spot while Joao Cancelo, who arrived from Juventus in the summer, has not put the expected pressure on Kyle Walker for the right-back spot.

But the undeniable truth is that many of Guardiola's regular players are a year older and the impact of two brilliant but gruelling seasons look to have taken their toll.

The influence of both David Silva and Sergio Aguero has slipped, particularly their inability to maintain the press with the same intensity, and a lengthy injury to Leroy Sane has meant the City boss has not been able to rotate his forward options as much as he would like.

It's early days in both Cancelo's and Rodri's City careers and time will tell how successful those expensive signings will prove to be. But the decision not to pay for an experienced senior central defender has meant that the summer transfer action has not seen them kick on.

Barca spent heavily on the quality of Antoine Griezmann and promise of Frankie De Jong, Juventus did the same with big wages for the experience of Aaron Ramsey and Adrien Rabiot and the youthful promise of Matthijs de Ligt.

Liverpool, meanwhile have been spurred on by their brilliant Premier League season, when they were within a point of a first top-flight title since 1990, and then their sixth Champions League crown.

But it's just not personnel that is the problem at City. Guardiola will no doubt stick to his high-risk attacking philosophy that blows away opposition when they get it right. But at the moment, they simply aren't.

Furthermore, their three European exits under Pep - when they conceded to six goals to Monaco, five to Liverpool and four to Spurs - give good reason to fear that they will be picked off again.

Midfielder Ilkay Gundogan admitted that they may have lost some of their focus in the early months of this season and hopes they can get their form back when the knockout stages begin.

"If you are successful and have won so many things, sometimes you lose focus during that period," he said. "But the more defeats you have the more you recognise that's not really the way you want to end up and you want to improve again and get to the level you were."

"It's now the challenge to bounce back as quick as possible. We all want to be successful and be the best because the potential is there."

City need to bounce back soon or Guardiola will be proved right - that they are not at the level of the European elite.

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