Manchester City hunting treble as UCL stroll against Basel beckons
An unlikely treble is still a possibility for Manchester City, as they head into the second leg of their Champions League tie with Basel on Wednesday night. Leading 4-0 from the first leg, the club is as good as through to the quarterfinal stage, barring what would be a remarkable collapse -- and one not in keeping with everything that's gone before it at the Etihad this season so far.
Throughout the campaign, manager Pep Guardiola was quick to shoot down any ideas that the club could win everything -- "no chance," was his go-to phrase when asked about a quadruple, "it's not going to happen". He was right; Wigan ended their FA Cup dreams with a shock 1-0 win in February.
With the League Cup sewn up courtesy of a 3-0 win over Arsenal at Wembley and the Premier League all but finished -- City need four wins from their final nine games to make sure of finishing top -- it falls to the continent where Guardiola will be under the most pressure.
In recent history, the club has had success on all three fronts domestically, but barring a foray to the semifinals of the Champions League in 2016, modern City are yet to make a real impact on the European stage. They've had big moments, wins over Barcelona or Bayern Munich for instance, but never a sustained spell of strong performances.
Manuel Pellegrini's run to the last four in 2015-16 was admirable, but it was built on a bedrock of underperformance elsewhere. City were out of the Premier League title race fairly early, while their FA Cup assault was meekly surrendered in a 5-1 loss at Chelsea.
The Chilean named a team of sacrificial lambs to ensure his strongest side didn't get injured ahead of the Champions League round of 16 first leg with Dynamo Kiev and the League Cup Final with Liverpool. After success at Wembley, and with no FA Cup or Premier League to worry about, Pellegrini put all his eggs for the season in the Champions League basket.
Of course, to say that it was a simple run to the last four would undermine his achievements. He won a tough group that contained both Juventus and Sevilla, before overcoming a strong PSG side with a 2-2 draw in Paris and a 1-0 home win in the quarterfinals. Nevertheless, the draw was still kinder than it might otherwise have been -- they lost 1-0 to Real Madrid, the first of the elite teams they faced that year.
That, in essence, probably determines how well City do this season under Guardiola. A 6-6 draw over two legs in round of 16 tie with Monaco in 2016-17 might have been entertaining, but it showed what deficiencies the team had. They didn't have the maturity to play as the manager demanded in the second leg and were eliminated on away goals. When the draw was made, the fans were happy -- but ignorance is bliss, after all.
There were no such mistakes against Basel. The tie may only be halfway through, but four away goals and none conceded should mean the job is already done and thoughts can be cast towards the next round already. It would be highly unlikely that City blow the tie from here.
This year, more than previous seasons, City are less dependent on the luck of the draw, too. On current form, you'd fancy them against many teams -- including the European elite -- so they shouldn't be too nervous about who they get out of the hat. Ask Napoli whether Guardiola's side are as dangerous as some of the other European giants, like Barcelona or Real Madrid.
What makes Guardiola's achievements all the more remarkable, whether or not City go on to win the Champions League, is that they have been successful on all fronts. In the past, the club have won one or two competitions in a season and it's come at a cost elsewhere -- but this team has managed to consistently fight domestically and in Europe with a level of consistency that's bordering on insane.
The loss to Wigan is the anomaly and the manager will probably be kicking himself over it for some time.
Fans aren't expecting a treble to happen, but they live in hope that this could be an historic season. The Champions League is set up perfectly for City to progress to the next round, and from there, it's all about how they perform on the big occasions. That should be easier with the pressure off elsewhere.
Whatever you think about how realistic a quadruple was this season, it was more than a small possibility at the beginning of February. Following the disappointment against Wigan, it's now a situation where a treble is certainly not out of the question. The club may never have a better chance than this season to make that happen.
David Mooney is ESPN FC's Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney