It's really easy to make the case for Manchester City to win the Champions League (you can see all the remaining matches in the tournament on Paramount+). They're the best team. They've been the best team in Europe since around November. They score a lot, though not more than Paris Saint-Germain, their semifinal opponents, but where they really excel is on the defensive side of the ball. Pep Guardiola's side concedes 0.57 non penalty expected goals per match (xG is measure of the quality of chances created) in league play, by far the fewest of any team in Europe's big five leagues. Fellow Champions League semifinalist Chelsea is second with 0.74 per match. PSG are all the way down at 25th in Europe with 1.06 non-penalty xG conceded per match.
So, as is befitting of a team that's currently the favorite to win the tournament, making the case for them is less about what has to go right, and more about what cannot go wrong. So, here are three things that can't happen if Manchester City are going to actually deliver on their favorite status and win the Champions League:
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1. No yips for Pep Guardiola
If Pep Guardiola isn't the most successful manager currently working, he's in the top two. And yet, he hasn't been to the finals of the Champions League since winning the tournament in the 2010-11 season. Is this a thing? It's probably not a thing. It's very hard to win the Champions League and Guardiola's record is full of a number of losses to the eventual tournament winners, including Chelsea in 2011-12 at Barcelona and then Real Madrid and Barcelona in his years at Bayern Munich. Tough losses happen.
That said, there have been just enough other hiccups that it's worth wondering whether Guardiola is making choices that are less than ideal in big spots. In three of his four seasons at City, his side has been eliminated by teams they were solidly favored to defeat and last year's quarterfinal loss to Lyon was truly shocking. That's not to say that Guardiola's teams have necessarily played poorly in these moments. They haven't, but they also haven't been at their swashbuckling best. In the Champions League, Guardiola tends to set his team up to maximally control games against inferior opposition. Over the years he has made such curious choices as starting Ilkay Gundogan on the wing against Liverpool in the 2017-18 quarterfinals or starting a conservative midfield three of Gundogan, Rodri and Fernandinho against Lyon.
There's a logic to City's conservative nature in these moments. Why take risks if your opponent will eventually beat themselves (and for proof that it often works just look to Dortmund's Emre Can last round who did his level best to hand the quarterfinals to City all by himself). But it can make the matchups closer than they have any right to be. If City don't win the Champions League, one reason will likely be because Guardiola once again got the yips and set his team up not to lose, instead of to win.
2. Goals don't dry up
Manchester City have two strikers. It's just that in the biggest matches neither of them tend to play. Sergio Aguero, legend that he may be, has been hurt all season and managed only 500 total minutes between the Premier League and Champions League. His once seemingly heir apparent Gabriel Jesus has fallen out of favor in the biggest matches. While he's played a bunch in the Premier League he's only appeared in half of City's Champions League matches, for a total of just over 220 minutes. Instead Guardiola leans on a front line which has no recognized strikers, utilizing three of Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez, Phil Foden, and Bernardo Silva most frequently.
Usually it's more than enough to get the job done. It certainly was in the quarterfinals. That said, on Sunday in the League Cup final it took City until the 82nd minute to get the ball over the line against a team they were dominating in Tottenham Hotspur. And when they did it was thanks to defender Aymeric Laporte nodding home from a set piece. More generally it is true that City score slightly less than the best teams in Europe this season (although the same can be said for Real Madrid and Chelsea, and it's only PSG who remain in this season's Champions League with truly elite attacking numbers). City want to win relatively low-scoring matches, and their defense allows them to do that, but you still need to score goals at some point.
The load will likely fall on the shoulders of midfield superstar Kevin de Bruyne along with Gundogan to make that happen. They've done it more often than not this season. But if City are unexpectedly dumped from the tournament it'll likely be because despite creating chances those two just couldn't quite find the moment of magic to free one of their unconventional front line.
3. Defenders don't turn into pumpkins
Look, City's defense has been great. They just don't concede very much. But it's hard to escape the fact that the center of that defense is built on John Stones and Ruben Dias. This isn't to disparage those two players. Dias in particular has turned out to be an inspired signing from Benfica and at only 23 is likely to be a mainstay in City's defense for years to come. But John Stones? Really?
Stones was a player who looked like he was on his way out of Guardiola's plans. Last season he played 1,100 total Premier League minutes, making it onto the field in only 16 matches. He was often stuck behind converted midfielder Fernandinho when it came to picking the back line. In the Champions League he played exactly once, and even then only for a half. It just didn't seem likely he'd be an important part of City's back line. Then City went out last summer and bought not only Dias but also Nathan Ake.
And yet, here we are. Stones is first choice, as players like Laporte, Fernandinho (when he's not in midfield) and Ake are relegated to the bench behind him. The results speak for themselves, and Guardiola's ability to find the right player for the system he's playing is unparalleled. But you can't help but wonder if there's just a chance that the relatively untested pairing of Stones and Dias do not rise to the biggest moments. City's stellar defense rests on those two being exactly as impeccable as they've been all season and not coming up wanting at the worst possible moment.