The hardest part begins for Manchester City. A little more than three months after their victory in the final against Inter Milan (1-0), the Skyblues are preparing to make their debut in the 2023-2024 edition of the Champions League, this Tuesday (9 p.m. ) against Red Star Belgrade (group G), in the shoes of the title holders. A status that is always difficult to assume.
You only need to look at the track record of “the Big Ears Cup” over the past three decades, i.e. since its change of formula and name, to become aware of this. Indeed, between 1993 - and the coronation of Olympique de Marseille - and 2023, only the incredible Real Madrid of Zinédine Zidane, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema managed to retain their title, twice moreover, winning the most beautiful European competitions three seasons in a row, between 2016 and 2018. Even the “great” FC Barcelona...of Pep Guardiola from the late 2000s-early 2010s period, worn by Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta and Lionel Messi failed to achieve a double. This shows the challenge that awaits the Spanish technician and his men this season.
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It will be all the more difficult for them to repeat their performance from last season as their squad was (a little) turned upside down in the off-season. The Citizens have among others lost Ilkay Gündogan, who left for FC Barcelona, and Riyad Mahrez, who joined Saudi Arabia (Al-Ahli). Two players who proved valuable, even essential, in winning the European title last season. To compensate for their departure, and (also) strengthen themselves, they were active on the transfer market by recruiting the talented and promising Josko Gvardiol in defense, his compatriot Mateo Kovacic and the Portuguese Matheus Nunes in midfield, and the ex-Rennais Jérémy Doku in attack.
With these significant changes - but also because he has to do without his playing master Kevin De Bruyne, absent for several more weeks - Pep Guardiola was forced to adapt and modify (again) his game plan. Julián Álvarez, accustomed to coming off the bench during the last exercise, for example established himself, at the start of the season, as a starter in support of Erling Haaland. A position occupied (mainly) by Ilkay Gündogan, in a different register. It will therefore take time for Manchester City to regain the automatisms that allowed it to reach the roof of Europe last June.
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Fortunately for them, the Skyblues can still count on their “Cyborg”. The arrival of the Norwegian last summer, from Borussia Dortmund, changed everything. He is a constant threat, capable of scoring at any time, both in positional play and on the counterattack. Last season, he finished the Champions League campaign with twelve goals...in eleven matches played. And if he didn't shake the nets from the semi-finals onwards, he still did a lot of work for the collective, weighing on the defenses thanks to his physical presence and his incessant calls. There is no doubt - especially given the start of the 2023-2024 financial year - that he should once again be decisive in this new edition of the Champions League, and perhaps even as early as this Tuesday. But can he (again) lead his team to the ultimate title? Response in a few months.