The routine group stage home victories are not the ones that put Europe on alert. And, in fairness, the top clubs need no warning anyway.
Everybody knows what Manchester City are about and even the wild quirks of football — conceding with the first shot on your goal when you’ve already had 22 fruitless efforts of your own — could not derail their return to Champions League action as holders.
Barring that fleetingly worrying aberration, City fizzed with neat interchanges, particularly between Phil Foden and Julian Alvarez playing behind Erling Haaland, that hint at new ways to win as they swept aside Red Star 3-1.
That was 37 shots in total for Manchester City tonight.
More than any team in a single game across all Champions League matches since 2018-19.
— Mark Carey (@MarkCarey93) September 19, 2023
And those new ways to win, the trophies still to play for, are what were thrown into the spotlight as City brought the famous trophy back to the Etihad Stadium.
Ever since their glorious night in Istanbul in June, it has been common to hear City fans say — some jokingly, some less so — that they do not really care what happens in future, because they have already won it all. Completed football.
It is a stance that would no doubt be tested by even a solitary half of stodgy football, but if you were to take the temperature of the club by putting the thermometer somewhere around the edges — the fans, the media, even the CEO — you might get the sense there is nothing left to achieve.
Ferran Soriano, the CEO in question, said only last week: “Now we won it and people are relaxed. We’re now in a better place, we’re going to try to win again but we felt the weight on our shoulders of almost winning year after year.”
Yet to find out exactly how hot things are where it matters, listen to Pep Guardiola speak on Monday. Istanbul was not the final destination.
He was asked about Soriano’s comments and seemed surprised they had been uttered in the first place. “He feels (this)?” he asked. “Important is that the players don’t feel relaxed. The board and chairman and CEO are relaxed — that’s good. They don’t play.”
That was the theme of his press conference.
“I’d like to say that for our club to win the Champions League is incredible,” he said. “But in terms of the Champions League: how many teams have won it once? A lot have won two, three, four, five. In perspective, we did nothing special. Just one. (But) we didn’t have it and we’re proud.”
And so the obvious takeaway was that, while it has been a summer of glorious reflection, City might go and win the Champions League again. And again.
What is stopping them? Real Madrid always represent the bogeyman in this particular conversation and it is plausible they get revenge for last season’s dismantling and retake their throne as kings of Europe. But what happened last season showed a chasm between the sides that is not easily bridged.
Bayern Munich? Funnily enough they came closer to knocking out City than Madrid did, but the combination of robust defending and Haaland-led rampages forward put paid to them. Who else?
Red Star provided a reminder of what can happen at this level (and higher), not that City need it after seeing previous European dreams go up in smoke just at the very moment when things seemed to have clicked. Dangers lie around every corner.
But what is for sure is that nobody will be any keener to face City than they were last season. They have lost some experience and game management in Ilkay Gundogan and Riyad Mahrez, but have bolted on ball carriers in midfield like Mateo Kovacic and Matheus Nunes, who made his full debut on Tuesday and did not look out of place (which sounds low-key but is a massive compliment).
They have added a dazzling winger in Jeremy Doku, who came on for the injured Bernardo Silva and started beating men like nobody has done since Leroy Sane graced the Etihad. Well, since Doku did the same at West Ham at the weekend, anyway. He is a “proper” winger, as Guardiola calls him, and adds another new dimension.
Then there is the fact Guardiola is putting Foden, Alvarez and Haaland (and a direct winger like Doku) in the same team all at once, something that would have felt impossible even as recently as last season when he settled on a patient, pass-oriented team to ensure they controlled matches even with Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne roaming about.
Injuries have forced Guardiola’s hand there to an extent but he has seen it works, and with each passing game it all looks a bit slicker — even if Haaland’s finishing seems to oscillate between “Will he ever score again?” and “How has he scored another hat-trick?”
As early-season kinks go, these are not hard to iron out.
But when compiling the list of things that could stop City winning the Champions League again it is probably just as important to look at themselves: Red Star named 10 outfielders on the bench on Tuesday, City named six.
Doing what he does best to secure the W! 🕷️💪 pic.twitter.com/t5zUEBFNVX
— Manchester City (@ManCity) September 19, 2023
It is hard to know which side of the debate to come down on: they have won all of their games so far this season without De Bruyne and John Stones (who was absolutely pivotal to last season’s upturn in performances from March onwards). They have been without Foden, Bernardo has been in and out and is now out again, and Jack Grealish and Kovacic are the latest on the sidelines.
On the one hand, none of that has stopped them and they will presumably be even stronger when they are all back. A fearsome thought indeed. But Guardiola has already warned the Carabao Cup game at Newcastle next week will be the one to suffer, with players, he says, called up from the academy to ensure the fit senior players gain some rest.
That is fine, but the concern is that a similar spate of injuries might occur in the spring when City are trying to see off their title rivals and semi-final opponents in the FA Cup and Champions League, and suddenly the biggest matches look like a bridge too far.
There is almost no point in thinking that far ahead, and you know for a fact that, as much as Guardiola is aiming for more success, that only goes as far as looking at the next game.
But now City have started the defence of their crown, and have looked so vibrant in doing so, it is a sign that the time for looking back is over.
(Photo: Alex Livesey – Danehouse/Getty Images)