Aside from wider world events, and how they have impacted upon the very fabric of English and European football, Manchester City’s ban from the Champions League is arguably the biggest domestic story of the season.
If the ban is upheld beyond the point of return, City will not feature in Europe’s flagship club competition until 2022. As such, is this the end for City manager Pep Guardiola, and the club’s ongoing pursuit of a maiden Champions League trophy?
The answer, it seems, lies predominantly within the realisation of projected personnel losses that the ban may yield.
Midfield Mayhem Could be Inevitable
With no Champions League football, there would certainly be at least one ‘A-list’ departure – and of course, the one that City would feel most profoundly is Kevin De Bruyne. The Belgian belongs in the Champions League every season, and will need a club that can provide such a service.
Even if City were able to somehow find a De Bruyne replacement of equal all-round talent, that would be far from the end of the personnel issues. David Silva is already a confirmed summer departure, and despite his advanced age, he will be missed.
Arguably, the Spaniard has shown more energy and commitment than a number of much younger midfielders around the traditional ‘top-six’. Furthermore, the chemistry he shares with Sergio Aguero will also be conspicuous in its absence.
While Aguero himself is considered likely to stay at City, regardless of City’s European fate, the Argentine striker needs someone in a similar mould to Silva feeding his goal-poaching ability. Naturally, finding a suitable replacement will be all the more difficult, given the financial losses City are expected to sustain.
In turn, even if the usual front trio are retained and injury-free, the same free-scoring performances seen against Chelsea, West Ham and Watford over the past 18 months will become more of a rarity.
An Impact on Sterling’s Euro Chances
At club level, Sterling is a reliable scorer from wide, thanks unquestionably to the way he has grown under Guardiola. Yet, assuming Guardiola himself even stays put, Sterling will need all the momentum he can get from 2020/21 – whenever it begins. That too may see his head turned by the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid or PSG.
At present, the latest international football fixed odds show that England are joint-favourites with world champions France to win the Euros, and Sterling is one of the primary reasons why. However, only a solid run to the Champions League final in 2021 can act as the optimal catalyst, if Sterling is to honour England’s impressively-short Euro odds in the most emphatic way possible.
While some remain sceptical about his ability to translate his club form onto the international scene, Sterling was lethal at times in the Euro 2020 qualifiers. The next 12 months are crucial for him, especially with the stability he has only ever known at City now being potentially jeopardised.
Defensive Overhaul Could be Provoked
Without Vincent Kompany and Aymeric Laporte, City look decidedly ordinary at the back, and that issue could worsen even if City do win any future appeal.
Indeed, some of their recent results have been nothing short of a disgrace, especially for successive title winners. Some of City’s recent League doubles conceded – to Wolves, and an inconsistent Manchester United squad – stand as agonising nadirs, overseen entirely by a porous defence.
The brutal truth is that composed ‘pass masters’ like Fernandinho and John Stones will never truly be great all-rounders at the back. Aymeric Laporte is still the only defender who warrants such a tag, with Nicolas Otamendi continuing to split opinion.
In any case, no central defender other than Laporte has a watertight incentive to perform. At present, the left-sided Frenchman is assured – beyond reasonable doubt – of a starting berth upon his return to full match fitness.
Ultimately, the City defence may not need a total exorcism, but it certainly needs a cold, hard review. A failure to fulfil this need will only see repeats of that mad Champions League tie with Tottenham last year, in which City’s defence crumbled against what many saw as an inferior Spurs team.
Distraction-Free Calendar a Plus
Even without the services De Bruyne and Sterling, the effects of City’s ban from European football need not be uniformly negative.
Without Champions League action, fatigue and squad depth would be far less of an issue, giving City what seemingly amounts to a free run at a fourth Premier League title. After all, as proven by their more recent results, Liverpool cannot be this good forever.