Manchester City can breathe easy after avoiding the painful consequences of a two-season ban from European competition as a result of their successful appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
The club can now look forward to the return of this season’s Champions League in August safe in the knowledge that it is not the final chance for Pep Guardiola and a cast of stellar players to win European football’s biggest prize.
Preparations will also begin in earnest for next season’s Premier League campaign, with City intent on wrestling back the title from Liverpool and now given more room for manoeuvre in the transfer market.
AFP Sport looks at what comes next for City’s Abu Dhabi project, which has already reaped 11 major trophies since Sheikh Mansour’s takeover 12 years ago.
Win the Champions League
The one trophy missing from City’s collection over the past decade is the one they most desire — the Champions League.
Despite failing to win European football’s biggest prize in three years at Bayern Munich, Guardiola’s arrival at the Etihad was part of City’s plan to conquer Europe.
The Catalan coach has produced one of the finest teams English football has ever seen — winning two Premier League titles with the two highest points tallies ever seen in the English top flight as well as three League Cups and one FA Cup.
City have never made it beyond the quarter-finals of the Champions League in Guardiola’s previous three seasons in charge, but he believes their time could come in August when the competition resumes.
Since English football’s restart last month, City have been in scintillating form, scoring four or more goals in four of their past six league games, including a 4-0 humbling of newly crowned champions Liverpool.
“I feel the motivation and I think the team is there. I have the feeling that for my players in the club, and the organisation that we have, the next four weeks is something that is not coming back again,” said Guardiola ahead of Saturday’s 5-0 defeat of Brighton. “I think the big clubs don’t miss these chances.”
City’s route to glory will not be an easy one. They restart with the second leg of their last-16 tie against Real Madrid behind closed doors in Manchester, leading 2-1 from the first leg.
Should they progress to the final eight, to be held in neutral venues in Lisbon, Juventus could be their opponents in the quarter-finals before a potential reunion for Guardiola with Barcelona or Bayern Munich in the last four.
Rebuild and replace legends
Liverpool’s thrashing at the Etihad came after the Reds had already sealed the Premier League title with a record seven games to spare.
City are still 21 points behind Jurgen Klopp’s men at the top of the table and the manner in which their title defence collapsed shows a rebuild is necessary.
That will be much easier to do thanks to the financial boost and lure for players of Champions League football next season.
Just as importantly, there should now be no desire from players such as Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling to leave during the peak years of their career.
A knee ligament injury to Aymeric Laporte early in the season hit City where they most lacked cover, in central defence, after failing to replace departed captain Vincent Kompany. A centre-back is a priority in the transfer market, as is cover at left-back.
Another legend of the City project over the past decade will depart when David Silva leaves at the end of the season, but Phil Foden’s emergence offers cover in an area of the field City are already strong.
At 32, the club’s all-time top scorer Sergio Aguero is also nearing the end of a glorious spell in Manchester and his goals will not be easy or cheap to replace.
Guardiola’s contract expires at the end of the 2020/21 campaign. Should he oversee a fifth season, it will be the longest he has coached any club after admitting to being drained by four years at Barcelona and three with Bayern.
City’s success is also rooted in the structure of the club off the field. CEO Ferran Soriano and director of football Txiki Begiristain are responsible for the club’s recruitment strategy.
However, the hiring of Soriano and Begiristain, who both previously worked with Guardiola at Barcelona, in 2012 was made with an eye to luring Guardiola to Manchester.
City won two Premier League titles prior to Guardiola’s arrival and have the financial power to compete after he has gone.
But the surest way to keep winning trophies is to keep him at the club for as long as possible.