Liverpool fans won’t thank him for saying it, but Pep Guardiola effectively conceded the title following his side’s Manchester derby defeat on Saturday.
That home loss to Manchester United, coupled with Liverpool’s 3-0 win at Bournemouth, leaves City 14 points off the Premier League leaders with 16 matches played. Given Liverpool have dropped just two points all season it's a lead that seems unassailable.
“It’s unrealistic to think about catching up,” Guardiola said after the derby. Sitting six points ahead of City in second place, Brendan Rodgers’ rampant Leicester side look more equipped to challenge Liverpool.
Liverpool sacrificed a nine-point lead last season as City won their final 14 games of the season to clinch their second successive title. But the City of 2019/20 look a shadow of the side who claimed 98 points last season.
Guardiola’s men still suffocate their opponents in possession – they are averaging 66% of the ball this season, down two percent from 2018/19 – yet they look far more vulnerable as soon as they lose it.
City are susceptible on the break – see Adama Traore’s two goals at the Etihad in November – and set pieces – see Kenny McClean’s header at Carrow Road in September. Those frailties have resulted in defeats to Norwich, Wolves, Liverpool and United.
The departure and subsequent failure to replace Vincent Kompany, Aymeric Laporte suffering a ligament injury and a declining Fernandinho dropping into centre back as cover are all factors.
A squad that looked overloaded with world-class talent last campaign suddenly looks thin on the ground. Even if Liverpool were to slip up a City side this shaky are surely unable to claw back the deficit.
So that leaves three other competitions to focus on – two of which City claimed last season in addition to the Premier League to clinch the first-ever domestic treble in English top-flight history.
For a side with as lofty ambitions as City, one or even both of the FA Cup and League Cup would represent a disappointment in comparison with the previous two seasons.
European dominance is what they want. Lifting the Champions League instantly elevates the status of a club and City’s fans, owners, players and manager know this.
Guardiola spoke about the need to “seduce” the Etihad into loving the Champions League, a stadium where the anthem is roundly booed by supporters after the club’s past scrapes with UEFA.
Any ill will towards the governing body would surely be placed on hold if City were to win Europe’s most prestigious club competition.
Guardiola has already played on City’s status as an outsider to the Champions League, a new kid on the block mixing it with the heavyweights.
“Barcelona was born a long, long time ago and they’ve been in it every season since they were born,” he said ahead of the home clash with Dinamo Zagreb. “Here [at City] they have been in the competition for a short time.”
Even if painting City as the little team feels a touch hollow given the £660million the club have spent on transfers alone since Guardiola’s arrival, the Spaniard has a point.
City have won one European trophy, the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1970, and the closest they’ve come to success in the European Cup is the 2016 semi-final defeat to Real Madrid under Manuel Pellegrini.
Guardiola publicly insists that the Champions League is not a personal obsession for him. “If I don’t win it I’m not going to kill myself, promise,” he has said in the past. “I will be the same guy… It’s not going to change my life.”
The 48-year-old maintains that he was not brought to the club with the sole intention of winning it. “I spoke with [City chairman} Khaldoon Al Mubarak and he didn’t tell me I was here to win the Champions League.”
Yet winning a third Champions League would see Guardiola join an exclusive club formed of just Bob Paisley, Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane. It would also represent Guardiola’s first Champions League away from Barcelona, away from Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.
Guardiola is already City’s most successful manager. Winning the Champions League and he’d ascend from a legend to a deity, the man who provided City with their greatest hour. It’s an enticing prospect but time is running out.
There are rumours swirling that this will be Guardiola’s last season in Manchester. The Spaniard spent four seasons as Barcelona boss, three in Bayern Munich and this will be his fourth at City. Reports suggest he will seek a new challenge following the conclusion of this campaign.
Given Klopp’s runaway train at the top of the league and City’s paper-thin squad, this is the season when he’d be forgiven for prioritising Europe. In what is likely to be his final year, Guardiola could go all out to land the big fish.
Guardiola and City will have learned from their previous failings. They’ve reached the quarter-finals in each of the past three seasons, losing to Monaco, Liverpool and Tottenham respectively.
Even if City’s squad are too weak to handle the rigours of Premier League competition, they possess the quality to beat any team in Europe on their day. Knockout football may suit City more than ever. Will it all finally come together for the Sky Blues this season?
Wednesday night’s trip to Dinamo Zagreb admittedly won’t provide the answers. City are already assured of top spot in Group C, where Dinamo, Shakhtar Donetsk and Atalanta have all taken points off each other.
We’ll have to wait two months before the competition resumes with the last 16 in two months’ time. City will discover their opponents in Monday’s draw – with Real Madrid, Napoli, Inter Milan and Atletico Madrid all possibilities.
City’s season and Guardiola’s legacy could depend on it.