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Would Manchester City trade a Premier League hat-trick for Champions League glory? How Pep Guardiola's desire to leave the ultimate legacy could shape this season

Manchester City resume their Champions League campaign at home to Atalanta on Tuesday, from 7pm exclusively live on BT Sport.

“I would take right now what we did last season,” insists Pep Guardiola. “Not winning the Champions League and four titles again.”

"To maintain the health of the team, the focus in the Premier League. The Premier League always is the most important thing, the local competition because it is every weekend.”

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What if Manchester City fail to win the Champions League this year?

“If I don’t win I’m not going to kill myself, promise. I will be the same guy… it’s not going to change my life.”

“In my first press conference in my first year it was the same question. I spoke with [City chairman] Khaldoon Al Mubarak and he didn’t tell me I was here to win the Champions League.”

Since arriving in the summer of 2016, Guardiola has remained adamant that the Premier League is the priority because of what it means to the supporters, that the Champions League is not what the owners ultimately judge him on.

But what about Guardiola’s legacy? The Spaniard has lifted the European Cup on three occasions - twice as manager of Barcelona and once as a player with the La Liga giants - his “greatest memory”.

Winning a third with City would see him join Bob Paisley, Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane as the only coaches in history to win as many.

Yet crucially it would mean a Champions League trophy without Barcelona, without Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and one of the greatest club sides ever assembled.

It’s something he failed to do in three seasons in Germany with Bayern Munich, losing out in the semi-finals each time, and something he’s failed to do in his three seasons in England with City so far.

Even with £660million spent in the transfer market since his arrival in Manchester, Guardiola plays on City’s status as an outsider in Europe that lacks the prestige of his former club.

“Barcelona was born a long, long time ago and they’ve been in it every season since they were born,” he said ahead of last month’s clash with Dinamo Zagreb. “Here [at City] they have been in the competition for a short time.”

For a man as driven and ambitious as Guardiola, the prospect of leading City to their first European Cup is tantalising. Barcelona had won the competition twice before he arrived as a coach and once since.

Perhaps it’s what seduced him to Manchester in the first place.

From Sergio Aguero to Kevin De Bruyne, from Ederson to Fernandinho, City are hardly short of world-class talent. But in Barcelona Guardiola had Messi – arguably the greatest player of all time.

The ‘Fraudiola’ jibes have died down considerably following City’s back-to-back Premier League titles – even if the man himself addressed them in the wake of last month’s defeat to Norwich.

Yet if he fails to win the Champions League with City, or any other club he manages in the future, there will be legitimate criticism that he couldn’t do it without Messi.

First up for Guardiola is winning the battle for the minds of Manchester. Angered by several UEFA decisions against the club, City supporters will jeer the Champions League anthem on Tuesday as they have done so each match in recent years.

Large sections of City’s support treat the competition with a mixture of suspicion and apathy. Sometimes this is reflected in attendances – it is not uncommon to see empty seats for home European games at the Etihad.

Guardiola spoke about the need to “seduce” City’s supporters into falling in love with the Champions League. Winning the competition is usually the best solution.

Under the Spaniard, City have failed to advance past the quarter-finals. In 2016 they sacrificed a 5-3 first-leg lead to crash out on away goals at a young, attacking Monaco side that reached the semi-finals.

In 2017 they were outplayed by a Liverpool side who they finished 25 points clear of in the Premier League. And in 2018 a dramatic VAR decision denied them at the death against eventual finalists Tottenham.

When English teams are on course for domestic and European success there is always talk of which competition they should “prioritise”. The media narrative is that the team must make a decision to pursue one more dedicatedly than the other.

Sir Alex Ferguson spoke about how difficult it is to lift both in the same season. He remains the only coach to do so in the Premier League era and managed the feat only twice despite winning the top flight on 13 occasions. 

This season the choice may be taken out of City’s hands if Liverpool continue their early-season form.

It’s naïve and premature to anoint Liverpool as Premier League champions in October. But based on last season’s title race, where City and Liverpool finished on 98 and 97 points respectively, Guardiola’s men can hardly afford to drop any more points.

City would never consciously give up on the Premier League. Back-to-back-to-back league titles have only been achieved five times before in English football history and only twice in the Premier League era.

But last season they completed the first-ever domestic treble in history. Guardiola has proven his pedigree on these shores.
Despite the vast sums invested in the transfer market, City’s squad suddenly looks incapable of fighting on all four fronts.

Long-term injuries to Aymeric Laporte and Leroy Sane, Benjamin Mendy’s ongoing struggles with fitness and a failure to replace Vincent Kompany in the summer has left City thin – especially at centre back. Fernandinho has played alongside Nicolas Otamendi in recent weeks with John Stones also sidelined through injury.

The City boss must balance his squad carefully and Liverpool’s relentless form could serve to tip that balance in the direction of the Champions League.

Europe has offered refuge to City so far this season. While they’ve lost twice and drawn once domestically, City have won both their group stage games – against Shakhtar Donetsk and Dinamo Zagreb.

Beating competition debutants Atalanta, who are yet to win a point, at home on Tuesday will hardly send shockwaves throughout Europe. But a statement victory will ease any talk of a crisis enveloping the Etihad and take them one step closer to the knockout stages with three games still to play.

And perhaps it will be another step on the journey as City continue their quest for a maiden European Cup and Guardiola continues his pursuit of history.

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