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Saturday, June 12, 2021

Manchester City’s 13-year journey to the Champions League final

Manchester City could become the first team since Borussia Dortmund in 1997 to win the Champions League final on debut, ending a 13-year wait since the Abu Dhabi takeover.

Written by Shashank Nair | New Delhi |
Updated: May 30, 2021 8:03:42 am
Argentine Sergio Aguero, who will be leaving the club at the end of this term, is the last remaining cog from the team that won the Premier League in 2011-12 – their first top division title since 1968. (File Photo/PremierLeague)

A journey that started in 2008 for Manchester City could culminate on Saturday night. Thirteen years ago, the then minnow-club’s new owners in Abu Dhabi signed the dotted line to take control of a team that for long had lived under the shadow of their cross-city heavyweights. But over this weekend, when the Blues of Manchester walk onto the manicured pitch of the Estadio do Dragao in Porto, with only the Blues of London, Chelsea, standing in the way, Pep Guardiola’s team are just a win away from becoming the crown jewel of English football.

The club has won five Premier League titles (the latest just a few weeks back) in 10 years and two FA Cups. Now they will get a shot at that elusive Champions League title.

European glory delayed

Every aspect of owner Sheikh Mansour’s dream has been realised but for one – and that may change soon enough. City is the ninth football team in English history to reach the Champions League (earlier, the European Cup) final, an occasion that hasn’t quite been kind to debutants. Only one of the last 10 first-time finalists went on to win the title on that occasion – Borussia Dortmund beating Juventus 3-1 in 1997.

Since the ownership changed, the furthest they reached in the competition was the semi-final finish in 2015-16, and they managed three consecutive quarterfinal finishes in the past three years. But now that they’ve reached further than ever before, there’s a certain confidence about the future of the club.

“It’s a dream to be in the Champions League final. It’s been a journey that started with the FA Cup win in 2011 and we have been able to clinch many domestic trophies since,” City’s Chief Football Operations Officer Omar Berrada told reporters on Wednesday.

“The Champions League brings in the best clubs from the world and gives you that additional element of prestige if you win it.

“We have worked so hard to get here and I believe we will continue to be in the knockout stages in the years to come because the groundwork has been done to put us in that position. Winning the Champions League will give us prestige, but it’s the long-term effort that has been put in that will ensure we stay successful.”

The Guardiola effect

That scope for long-term returns comes from the efforts put in by Guardiola. Armed with the riches brought in by the Abu Dhabi Royal Family, previous managers Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini struggled to find success in Europe.

The Spaniard however, bred at the fabled La Masia, has won three Champions League titles with Barcelona, once as a player and twice as manager. Yet even he found it difficult to lead a team to the European title once he left the comfort of the Catalan club.

A three-year stint at Bayern Munich ended up resulting in more questions asked of him than answers. In that period though, City prepared a base for the 50-year-old. The Club’s CEO Ferran Soriano and Director of Football Txixi Begiristain –architects of Barcelona’s golden period in the late 2000s and early 2010s – decided Guardiola would be the best person to usher in a new generation of players at the club.

In the five years he’s been there, Guardiola has overseen the transition from the likes of Vincent Kompany, David Silva and Pablo Zabaleta, to the young talents of Kevin De Bruyne, Fernandinho, Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden and Ruben Dias – all key figures in this Champions League run.

The past leading the future

This ability of City’s riches to tinker with their squad in ways unknown to other teams has led to a depth that takes from the big names from the past to the shining stars of the present and future. Sergio Aguero though has remained a constant. The Argentine, who will be leaving the club at the end of this term, is the last remaining cog from the team that won the Premier League in 2011-12 – their first top division title since 1968.

In 2014 Aguero had famously replied to the question of how long he’d stay at City with a straight-faced “Until we win it” retort.

The destiny of a Champions League trophy in his final moments as a player at the club may or may not happen, but his legacy marks arguably the most famous moment in the club’s history – that last minute winner that earned them their first title in 44 years (aptly remembered by the screech of commentator Martin Tyler’s voice when that goal was struck).

Aguero’s tenure at the club marked the beginning of the trophy-laden era, and it could end with the club winning its biggest piece of silverware, the biggest prize of them all, on Saturday.

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