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Column: For all of Manchester City’s greatness, it lacks a Champions League title

FBL-ENG-FACUP-MANCITY-WATFORD
For manager Pep Guardiola and Manchester City, a sweep of the English Premier League, League Cup and FA Cup left them one title short of supremacy.
(Glyn Kirk / AFP / Getty Images)

Manchester City’s 6-0 rout of Watford in the FA Cup final Saturday puts a bow on the best two-year run by a British soccer club, one that included two league crowns, four domestic cups and an unprecedented treble. It may also have been the best single season for the Premier League as a whole, with the title race going down to the last minutes of the last weekend and four teams advancing to the finals of Europe’s two biggest competitions.

That last part has never happened before, and it’s a bit of history that takes some of the luster off Manchester City’s accomplishments.

City’s back-to-back league titles made it the first team to repeat as champion since crosstown rival Manchester United in 2008-09. The FA Cup win makes it the first team to sweep all three domestic competitions — the EPL, League Cup and FA Cup — in the same season.

Along the way, City broke, then tied, the single-season record for wins with 32 and is the only team to top 97 points in an EPL season, something it has done each of the last two years.

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Yet for all that domestic dominance, City finished the season without the one prize it most covets: a European title, something four of the teams it vanquished at home still can win.

City coach Pep Guardiola, who won three Champions League titles as a player and coach at Barcelona, said as much last week.

“I need to see what I can do better because, right now, in the Champions League, I’ve not been good enough at this club,” he told the City website. “Even if we win the English trophies, it’s still not certain that we’re the best.”

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They’re not — not if other teams win the bigger prizes. Now it appears City’s record-setting season might be tarnished even further after the club was referred to UEFA’s club financial control body adjudicatory chamber following an investigation into allegations of unfair financial practices.

Although no recommendations for punishment have been made public, the New York Times reported investigators will ask for a season-long ban from the Champions League. City has been under scrutiny for possible breaches of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations, which were designed to even the playing field by preventing clubs from spending their way into unmanageable debt or wealthy owners to give top teams an unfair advantage.

The club, which has been accused of breaking the rules before, denied any wrongdoing this time. But the German magazine Der Spiegel, citing club documents gathered by the independent Football Leaks investigative project, say City inflated sponsor fees when the club spent more than expected. The New York Times estimated City’s roster cost more than $1 billion to put together.

Apparently, even that wasn’t enough to buy the club’s owners everything they wanted. City’s season is over now, but Chelsea and Arsenal, third and fifth, respectively, in the EPL standings, will meet in this month’s Europa League championship in Azerbaijan. Second-place Liverpool and fourth-place Tottenham will face off in the Champions League final June 1 in Madrid.

City lost only two of 16 league games to those four teams in the last two seasons, outscoring them by a combined 38-11. Yet it was Liverpool and Tottenham that eliminated City from Champions League play in the quarterfinals each of the last two years.

How, then, to explain the disconnect? How can a team be so dominant in league play yet so disappointing against the same teams in European play?

“In terms of points, goals and stats, we are the best,” Guardiola said. “But football is not about numbers. It’s about emotions.”

City is not the only team to dominate domestic competitions only to stumble repeatedly in European tournaments. Paris Saint-Germain has won seven of the last eight French titles and 15 domestic cups since 2012-13 but hasn’t gotten past the quarterfinals of an international competition in more than two decades.

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Juventus has won eight Serie A titles and eight Italian cups in the last eight seasons, but it hasn’t won a European title this century. Bayern Munich, which Saturday captured its seventh straight Bundesliga title, has won just one Champions League title in that span.

Fatigue could be one explanation. In City’s case, Saturday’s FA Cup final was the 61st game of the season. Liverpool, which finished a point back in the EPL race, played 11 fewer domestic matches after losing in the first round of both the FA and league cups.

Then there’s the fact a round ball can take funny bounces in a competition like the Champions League. Barcelona, winner of the last two Spanish crowns, was twice knocked out of the European tournament short of the final, blowing three-goal leads in the second leg both times. Tottenham won its spot in this year’s final by overcoming a three-goal deficit of its own, on the road, on Lucas Moura’s score six minutes into stoppage time.

Finally, there’s desire. City’s two league titles in the last two seasons are two more than Liverpool has won in the Premier League era. Tottenham has won just two in its history, the last in 1961. As a result, the chance to win something — anything — is likely to burn hotter in those two dressing rooms.

For Liverpool, playing in the Champions League final is a fitting end to a season in which it was the only European team to lose just once in league play. And the Reds’ 97 points were the third-highest total in EPL history behind only City.

Liverpool made it this far a year ago only to see scoring leader Mohamed Salah hobble off with an injury in the 31st minute of a 3-1 loss to Real Madrid in Kiev.

“That was tough,” defender Virgil van Dijk told the soccer magazine FourFourTwo. But the loss, he said, left he and his teammates with a clear goal for this season.

“Take it, learn from it, and try to not let it happen again.”

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If Liverpool does that and wins, its season may not be the best ever, but it will arguably be better than Manchester City’s year.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com | Twitter: @kbaxter11


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