Finally Pep: FC Bayern face Manchester City
The Champions League quarter-final and semi-final pairings were drawn on Friday. In the quarter-finals, FC Bayern will meet their Cityzens in a competitive match for the first time since Pep Guardiola joined FC Bayern. The winner is set to face the victor of Real Madrid v. Chelsea in the semi-finals.
The quarter-finals at a glance:
SL Benfica – Inter Milan
Manchester City – Bayern München
Real Madrid – Chelsea FC
AC Milan – SSC Napoli
Today’s “Sheikh Club” Manchester City has been one of England’s most traditional clubs. The Cityzens won the English FA Cup as early as 1904. They became English champions for the first time in 1937 and again in 1968. In 1970, they won the European Cup Winners’ Cup for the first and only time, when they beat Górnik Zabrze in the final.
After that, things went quiet around the Sky Blues for almost 40 years. This was going to change in 2008, when the Abu Dhabi United Group took over the club. Today, Manchester City is the nucleus of the City Football Group, which besides Manchester City includes ten other professional football teams.
Since the takeover, City have invested heavily in team and infrastructure and have won the English championship six times. Four of these titles were won in the last six years under long-time coach Pep Guardiola.
Yet the one big title City had been longing for more than anything else has remained uncannily elusive. While Manchester City suffered surprise early defeats at the hands of AS Monaco or Olympique Lyon in the Champions League in the first years under Pep, they came very close to winning the title in the last two years. In 2021, they lost in the final to Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea. In 2022, they narrowly lost out to eventual winners Real Madrid in the semi-finals after extra time. This year perhaps more than ever the team seems ready for the big one.
Wonder kid striker Erling Haaland, who was brought in from Dortmund for €60 million before this season, is expected to help. Although Haaland has been scoring at a ridiculous rate for City, opinions differ as to how much positive impact he’s had has on the statics of the Sky Blues’ game.
Fun Fact: In seven duels with BVB against FC Bayern, Haaland scored five times, but in all seven games the winner ended up being FC Bayern.
Manchester City’s record against FC Bayern is even. In six meetings so far, all from 2011 to 2014 in the group stage of the Champions League, both teams have three victories. In four of the matches, FC Bayern was coached by Pep Guardiola.
Bayern coach Julian Nagelsmann has met Pep Guardiola and Manchester City twice so far, both times in the 2018 Champions League group stage. His Hoffenheim side lost 2-1 in both matches.
Objectively speaking, Manchester City is the strongest team in the competition: top favourite with the bookmakers, number one on FiveThirtyEights Soccer Power Index, number one on Clubelo. From that point of view, Bayern are facing a tough draw. The fact that Real Madrid or Chelsea would be next up in the semi-finals makes the road to the final even tougher.
Especially as this year’s knockout phase is not as tightly packed with super teams as some of the previous years’. The current league leaders from England, Spain and France are no longer present. Dortmund? Liverpool? Atlético? Juve? Eliminated. In addition, most of the remaining big guns, Real, Bayern and Chelsea, do not consistently give the impression that they are currently playing at the maximum of their potential (the SPI and Elo values of these clubs confirm this impression).
In other words, there is a path to the final this year for Napoli for example that leads through Frankfurt, Milan and Benfica. Or via Bruges, Inter and Napoli for Benfica, if they were to make it. Relatively easy tournament paths, nominally.
It is the basic philosophical question before every draw: Do you want a relatively easier opponent or a top opponent? Would you rather have a 25% chance of reaching the final and two highlight ties on the way, or would you rather have a 50% chance of reaching the final and two rather unspectacular opponents along the way, albeit with a slight risk of stumbling over either of them?
The myth that you have to beat all comers anyway if you want to win the title is just that: a myth. Of course, there are those years in which the eventual winner eliminates only strong opponents on the way to the title. Conversely, there are always the Villarreals and Co. against whom the top clubs are surprisingly eliminated. All of this is anecdotal evidence, no more.
And yet the philosophical question of the favourite opponent is only of limited relevance in this draw. It has been seven years since Pep Guardiola left FC Bayern, where he left such a lasting impression. Guardiola’s new team and FC Bayern have played in the Champions League every year for seven years. In the seven group stages and six knockout rounds so far, there has never been a direct clash. The duel is overdue.
We can look forward to two games of footballing excellence. Two games in which nuances could (and probably will) ultimately decide who prevails; to two coaches who have probably started going through match plans and tactical adjustments in their heads the very moment the draw was made.
After the round of 16 stretched over five weeks, the pace is going to pick up in the spring. The quarter-final first leg will take place in Manchester on Tuesday, 11 April 2023. Eight days later on 19 April, FC Bayern is playing host to Pep Guardiola at the Allianz Arena for the second leg. The semi-finals will start on 9 May and the final on 10 June.