THE ONE missing major prize in Manchester City’s trophy cabinet is the UEFA Champions League, an important bauble because it would rubber-stamp the credibility City crave as a European power. Last season, they reached the final, but screwed up their tactics and Chelsea beat them 1-0.
City have a relatively comfortable draw in the round of 16, Sporting Clube de Portugal, who won their first Primeira Liga in 19 years in 2020-21. They could have been paired with a tougher opponent, although Sporting are no fools and are making a good fist of trying to retain the title they won so impressively last year.
City’s bid for European glory is not just something the club needs, their coach Pep Guardiola also yearns to get his hands on the cup with the big ears once more. He last won it in 2011 and another triumph would make him only the fourth manager to lift the trophy three times after Bob Paisley (1977,1978 and 1981), Carlo Ancelotti (2003, 2007 and 2014) and Zinedine Zidane (2016, 2017 and 2018).
Guardiola and Ancelotti are two of four managers currently involved in the Champions League who have the experience of winning the competition, Thomas Tuchel and Jürgen Klopp are the others. City, Real Madrid, Chelsea and Liverpool will be among the contenders to win this year’s title.
What makes City’s bid so strong this time around? Aside from their league form, which has opened up a nine point lead at the top of the Premier after 12 wins in 13 games, City have the best record against Europe’s elite bracket of clubs over the past five years (not including 2021-22). Their win rate is 62%, some 10 percentage points better than Barcelona (51.9%), Real Madrid, Leipzig and Liverpool (all 50%). Their win rate in their domestic league is 78.3%, bettered only by Sporting and Bayern Munich (81%).
City have, arguably, the strongest squad in Europe and they contributed more players (12) than any other club in the latest Guardian Top 100 Players ranking. Furthermore, the fundamentals suggest City are way ahead of most clubs; according to data from CIES Football Observatory they enjoy more possession than any of their peers, their 66.7% average in domestic football is the highest across Europe. Moreover, they have an accurate passing rate of 89.9%, a figure topped only by Paris Saint-Germain (90.8%).
The last 16 of the Champions League have an average of 59% possession, almost half reaching 60% or more. Unsurprisingly, Lille, the lowest-placed of the last 16 in their leagues, have the least impressive possession rate of 49%.
City also average 7.1 shots on target per game, an upper quartile figure, but some way behind the most accurate shooters, Bayern Munich, who average 9.2 per game.
Along with three other teams from the last 16 (Sporting, Salzburg and Bayern), City have a 2.5 points-per-game ratio. Only five teams have a sub-two points ratio.
Naturally, Europe’s aristocrats are the biggest spenders and the last 16 includes most of the richest clubs, one notable exception being Barcelona. Over the past 10 seasons, Transfermarkt data reveals the 16 have spent the equivalent of £ 12.6 billion on a gross basis and £ 2.9 billion net. Five clubs have a positive net figure, including acknowledged experts in the art of player trading Ajax, Benfica and Sporting. The biggest net deficits over the decade belong to Manchester United (£ 914 million) and Manchester City (£ 897 million).
The group stage survivors comprise seven league leaders, including the usual suspects (Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Ajax, Red Bull Salzburg) and all bar one of the 16, reigning French champions, Lille, are currently in the top six of their domestic leagues. The stage is set for the usual heady mix of excitement, drama and controversy, all of which make the Champions League the most watchable football event on the planet.