Saturday 3 August, 1.00pm
Stephen Tudor argues that Champions League success for Manchester City next month feels almost destined.
"Guardiola is priming his squad for an August assault on the biggest prize of them all; ensuring all his options have plenty of minutes in their legs."
Whisper it quietly for fear of waking a handful of European giants, but Manchester City have the scent of Champions League glory in their nostrils.
It's been there before of course: the scent, only on those occasions something always held them back. Usually, this took the form of a deep-seated insecurity telling them they weren't quite ready while in recent campaigns Pep Guardiola's tendency to over-complicate tactics has been the Blues' undoing at critical junctures.
This time feels different though. After eight years of falling short the belief is more piqued than ever. The desire is manifesting itself as an intention, not merely an aspiration.
It's not for nothing that City are the tournament's [4.50] favourites even though they still face an onerous second leg against Real Madrid to reach the quarter finals. For all their undoubted quality PSG trail in the betting and they have already progressed.
There are a number of reasons for this, and we will highlight the most pertinent below, but there is another persuasive aspect too; something more quixotic. It is difficult to shake the feeling that the stars are aligning and this is finally Manchester City's time.
Momentum and motivation
Let's concentrate on the tangibles though, starting with the indisputable fact that City have put all of their eggs into the Champions League basket this season.
In domestic duties it was always going to be an impossible task to maintain their incredible form for three years running and thus it proved so with a title defence that petered out quickly.
In the Champions League however City coasted through their group, unbeaten, focused, and imperious.
This same disparity was witnessed back in February when De Bruyne and co were outstanding in Madrid, coming away with a priceless 2-1 first-leg advantage. Around that period City lost in fairly apathetic fashion against Spurs and Manchester United.
It's a prioritising that didn't waver even when a two year European ban was dished out and a global pandemic threw the sport into chaos. Since football's resumption Guardiola has routinely made five or six changes to his personnel every game - rotating his side more than any other top flight manager - and this hasn't been done to guarantee second spot.
He is priming his squad for an August assault on the biggest prize of them all; ensuring all his options have plenty of minutes in their legs. The return of Sergio Aguero post-Madrid - should they prevail of course - will only add to his formidable coterie.
"I feel the motivation and I think the team is there. I have the feeling that my players and the organisation that we have in the next four weeks is something that is not coming back again," the Catalan grandmaster recently said.
Which brings us to perhaps their biggest incentive of all.
It's now or never
In practical terms there should be no immediate sense of urgency for City to fulfil their Champions League dream, especially now that the Court of Arbitration for Sport has over-turned UEFA's punishment. They can and will challenge strongly again next term and no doubt the year after that.
For this particular set of players however - a vintage who boast nicknames such as the 'Fourmidables' and 'Centurions' for their unparalleled excellence - the window of opportunity to cap this highly successful era with continental silverware is fast closing.
This very possibly applies to Guardiola too and it absolutely does for the departing David Silva.
The little maestro has won pretty much everything in the game save for a Champions League and with the absence of fans depriving him of an emotional send-off he deserves its clear his team-mates are determined to ensure he rounds off a classy decade in English football on an ultimate high.
"We owe it to them," is how Kyle Walker put it, also referring to the 35-year-old Fernandinho.
Buoyed by CAS verdict
City have long had a caustic, complicated relationship with the Champions League and that was before UEFA dropped their punitive bombshell, ironically on Valentine's Day.
Since CAS decided in the club's favour on appeal Guardiola has been in a particularly bullish mood, firing salty salvos at everyone and everything, from Arsene Wenger to hypocrisy in the media and it's only slightly far-fetched to imagine him booing the tournament's anthem against Madrid in lieu of the fans.
The Blues have won their day in court, now they are just four skirmishes away from winning an honour that has always eluded them and consider this: what greater revenge can City have than to win UEFA's pride and joy?
Better yet, they are well positioned and in great shape to do so. Pay scant attention to the two league defeats since Project Restart and the same goes for continuing concerns over their back-line. In their eight games leading up to a national lock-down City scored 14 goals and conceded eight. In their nine games back they have scored 25 and been breached on only six occasions.
From the get-go Kevin De Bruyne has been on a one-man mission and most encouragingly of all the snappy, purposeful passing is back across the board.
From all the Champions League contenders it is a revitalised Manchester City who have the most motivation and arguably it is they who are looking the sharpest. It's not for nothing they are the tournament's favourites.
Saturday 3 August, 1.00pm