Manchester City and Manchester United have both got their eyes on winning the Champions League this season.
City, in incredible form in the league, have never won Europe’s top club prize; United, meanwhile, would be looking for a first since 2008 when they beat Chelsea on penalties in Moscow — having lost twice in the final to Barcelona in 2009 and 2011.
But can the Manchester clubs challenge Europe’s elite this season? We asked our club correspondents Jonathan Smith (City) and Rob Dawson (United).
MAN CITY: Confidence so high that it’s a real possibility
If Lionel Messi believes City can win the Champions League, there is no reason why Pep Guardiola’s players won’t believe exactly the same thing. The Argentine won the competition twice under Guardiola with Barcelona and is well aware that his former boss is building something special again at the Etihad Stadium.
Confidence is sky-high at City as they sit 16 points clear at the top of the Premier League after blowing away their title rivals. They’ve done it in a staggering, swaggering, sophisticated style with each of their rivals comfortably beaten — Chelsea at Stamford Bridge; Manchester United at Old Trafford; Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool thrashed at home.
The only serious blip in the Premier League was a 4-3 defeat at Liverpool, but even that is the sort of scoreline that most of the European giants would probably settle for in a two-legged clash — particularly if you are capable of securing a 5-0 win at home as City did in September.
One of the benefits of City’s huge lead at the top of the Premier League is that if their form continues at its current pace, they will have the title mathematically wrapped up by April 7 — days before the second leg of a possible Champions League quarterfinal. That means Guardiola will be able to throw his complete focus and all his assets at Europe in the final seven weeks of the season and put out a weakened team in the league.
Of course, City still have to reach the last eight, but it would be a huge shock if they were to slip up at FC Basel as they could hardly have been handed a kinder draw. The Swiss champions won’t be a pushover, having showed their quality by beating United at St. Jakob-Park in the group stage, but they have sold top defender Manuel Akanji since and shouldn’t be able to cope with City’s attacking power.
There will be high-profile casualties in the round of 16 with Real Madrid playing Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona vs. Chelsea, but Guardiola has been keen to play down expectations and insists City don’t have the same European experience as their rivals — they have gone beyond the last 16 only once, when they reached the semifinals in 2015 before a dismal exit at the hands of Real.
However, the reality is the continent’s leading clubs will be hoping to avoid City at their best. With Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling in top form, they are a scary prospect — Serie A’s best team, Napoli, were well beaten home and away and those results will have had everyone taking notice.
Fatigue could be the biggest threat to City’s hopes with injuries stretching Guardiola’s squad. But should they progress into the later stages, some of his players could be coming back refreshed and at just the right time.
Gabriel Jesus hasn’t played since the last day of 2017, David Silva has missed a number of matches for personal reasons and Leroy Sane is on the road to recovery after an ankle injury. Even Benjamin Mendy, out since September with a cruciate knee ligament injury, has vowed to be back in time for the semifinals.
After the season City have had so far, Guardiola’s side are capable of beating any side on the planet. Winning the Champions League is no longer a pipe dream; it’s a realistic proposition for the first time since Sheikh Mansour took over the club a decade ago. — Jonathan Smith
MAN UNITED: Alexis Sanchez may help, but this year is too soon
If Manchester United win the Champions League this season, manager Jose Mourinho can count it as one of his biggest successes.
They will expect to beat Sevilla over two legs in the round of 16, as the Spanish side have won two of their past five games and sit sixth in La Liga, but if United can progress to the quarterfinals, Mourinho knows better than most that anything can happen.
His two Champions League triumphs to date came with teams who were unfancied. And with world-class players such as David De Gea, Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez in the side, United are much better than his 2004 Porto or 2010 Inter Milan teams.
With Porto and Inter, Mourinho found a way of playing to his strengths while nullifying better teams. Ultimately, that is the challenge that faces him in the knockout rounds of this season’s competition.
Having Sanchez available after his January transfer from Arsenal is a boost as three of Mourinho’s key forwards — Anthony Martial, Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford — had played very little Champions League football before this season.
For the most part they have adapted well and helped United breeze through the group stage with five wins from six games but, as Mourinho will accept, the knockout rounds are different. Sanchez is one of the best attacking players in the world, but he also has valuable experience of that type of game from his time at Barcelona and Arsenal. The Chilean will be a valuable tactical asset to Mourinho.
If United are to reach the final in Kiev, they will have to beat better teams. Mourinho, a master of organisation, has learned how to stop teams playing — the way his Inter team took on Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona side in their 2010 semifinal is one of the best examples — but to win that type of tie, he also needs someone at the other end capable of doing something special and taking the one chance that comes up in a tight game. More so than Lukaku, Rashford or Martial, Sanchez has that ability.
However, this season may be too soon for United. After signing his contract extension last month, Mourinho said that by 2020 he wanted the club to “compete for everything.” That is a realistic assessment of the time it may take to build a Champions League-winning team.
United are behind Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid in the odds to win it this season for a reason. Juventus, who have won 10 straight games in all competitions and have conceded just one goal since Nov. 19, can also feel a little hard done by that they are not in that group, but it is a fair reflection of where United are.
Mourinho will want to win it before he leaves Old Trafford, but realistically this season there are better teams in it. It is likely United would have to beat two of the group of heavyweights ahead of them in the betting and that, at the moment, seems a little far-fetched.
Anything can happen over two legs, especially when Mourinho is involved, but it may just be too soon for a team still getting reacquainted with Europe’s top table. — Rob Dawson