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Why Man City could defend UCL crown, but another treble is unlikely

Pep Guardiola is a difficult man to read. The Manchester City manager can often betray a sense of false modesty, suggesting that incredible achievements are beyond his team before watching his players do what he had initially said would be impossible. Last season’s treble success was a prime example of that.

Perhaps Guardiola is simply adopting the same old “mind games” that most successful bosses deploy in an attempt to ease the pressure on their teams and dial down levels of expectation. But when a top manager plays down the chances of winning, nobody quite believes them.

Yet with City resuming the defence of their Champions League title when they face FC Copenhagen in Denmark on Tuesday in the round-of-16 first leg, Guardiola has emphatically ruled out the prospect of the Premier League champions repeating last year’s treble triumph.

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“This is a fairy tale, it’s more complicated than that,” he said last week. “We have a 99.99% possibility that we are not going to win the treble because never, never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever has anyone done it. If it was easy, another team — Manchester United in that time — would do it again. It’s not easy. Everything is so difficult in this business, what we did in the past doesn’t guarantee anything.”

False modesty again, or a case of Guardiola giving everyone connected with City a cold dose of reality?

The truth is that Guardiola might be right. Since the start of the Champions League era in 1992, seven teams, including City, have achieved the treble of domestic league, domestic cup and Champions League. To date, none of them have backed it up by repeating the feat 12 months later.

In 1999-2000, Sir Alex Ferguson’s treble winners at Manchester United defended the Premier League title, but they were eliminated at the quarterfinal stage of the Champions League by Real Madrid. That season, United were unable to defend the FA Cup after withdrawing from the competition to take part in the FIFA Club World Cup in Brazil.

Ten years later, Guardiola’s Barcelona won just one competition — LaLiga — after doing the treble in 2008-09, while Serie A champions Inter Milan followed up their treble in 2009-10 by winning only the Coppa Italia the following season.

German giants Bayern Munich did the treble in 2012-13 and 2019-20, but they achieved a domestic double in 2013-14 and won only the Bundesliga in 2020-21, while Luis Enrique’s Barcelona won LaLiga and Copa del Rey in 2015-16 but were knocked out of the Champions League at the quarterfinal stage to end hopes of back-to-back trebles.

But while history doesn’t favour City in their quest to become the first team to do a treble in successive seasons, they have one advantage that none of their six predecessors had in the Champions League: no emerging team looks set to claim their throne.

Vicente del Bosque’s great Real Madrid team, which won two Champions Leagues in three seasons, ended United’s hopes in 2000; Jose Mourinho’s treble-winning Inter side eliminated Barcelona in 2010; Bayern were ousted by Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid in 2014; Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid accounted for Barcelona in 2016 before losing to Real in the final.

In 2021, Bayern’s defence of their European crown ended against Paris Saint-Germain in the quarterfinals. That year, when Chelsea won the title, is perhaps the only example of a treble winner falling short in a relatively weak field. They are usually taken out by a formidable opponent.

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But it is hard to identify such a threat to City in this season’s competition. Bayern are struggling domestically under Thomas Tuchel, with Saturday’s 3-0 defeat at Bayer Leverkusen raising the real prospect of Bayern failing to win the Bundesliga for the first time since 2011, while PSG are a declining force in the Champions League following the recent departures of Neymar and Lionel Messi.

Barcelona are treading water in LaLiga, Italian champions Napoli are mid-table in Serie A, while neither Borussia Dortmund or Atletico Madrid look set to emerge as surprise winners. Arsenal have yet to convince that they have the consistency and experience to win the Champions League for the first time and while Inter are looking strong at the top of Serie A, City would have no fears against the Nerrazzurri if they were to meet, having beaten Simone Inzaghi’s side in last season’s final in Istanbul.

That leaves Real as City’s biggest threat, but even though midfielder Jude Bellingham — expected to be sidelined until March with an ankle injury — has been outstanding this season, LaLiga’s leaders still look short of a proven goal scorer following Karim Benzema‘s move to Al Ittihad last summer. And City blew Real away 5-1 on aggregate in last season’s semifinal, so Guardiola will not be fazed by a clash against Ancelotti’s team.

The team that City fear most — Liverpool — are not even in this season’s Champions League, so the path to glory in the competition appears more than navigable. But the Champions League is only one part of the treble. Liverpool still stand in City’s way in the Premier League and FA Cup, so maybe Guardiola is right to play down his team’s treble chances.

The Champions League might be the easiest one to win, but even though City are the team to beat in everything, their domestic challenge is likely to be the toughest and the one which will ultimately bring them down and prove Guardiola right to be pessimistic.


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