Express & Star

Matt Maher: Brilliant - but shadow of suspicion still clouds Man City

If any more proof were really needed of Manchester City’s standing as one of the finest teams in history, Wednesday night’s dismantling of Real Madrid surely delivered it.


Much of the post-match debate understandably centred around where the performance of Pep Guardiola’s team ranked in the pantheon of all-time great displays by English clubs in European competition. Common consensus was it should be placed pretty high up, if not at the very top.

Yet if you listened very carefully, amid the torrent of praise, it was still possible to pick out voices of concern.

Not everyone is saddled with a short memory and has forgotten just three months ago City were at the centre of a storm after being hit by the Premier League with 115 separate charges for breaches of its financial rules between 2009 and 2018.

That storm has not gone away but simply moved elsewhere, ready to return every now and then as a reminder of the asterisk some would currently see attached to City’s results.

Indeed, it was back in the news yesterday afternoon when it emerged the club had launched a legal challenge against the charges, disputing the process and the fact the league’s KC is an Arsenal supporter, the first of what is likely to be several counter-attacks in a case which is expected to take between two to four years to conclude.

That is an eternity in football.

The process is painfully but necessarily slow though by the time judgment is finally handed down, there is every chance Guardiola will have long departed the Etihad.

The most pertinent question is how much the off-field controversy currently detracts from the achievement of his team on the pitch?

For City supporters, you suspect not much, if anything at all.

The ecstasy they will have experienced at the final whistle on Wednesday, or on the countless other occasions Guardiola’s team have served up something special, can never be taken away.

But for many observers, City’s success comes with conflicting emotions and an uncertainty over how far we can buy in to what we’re watching.

The Premier League charges are not the first the club has faced, having previously had a two-year competition ban for breaching Uefa’s financial rules overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, in part because some of the charges were time-barred.

It can be difficult, if not completely impossible, to separate the on-field joy with the off-field issues never too far from the surface.

Granted, the Premier League charges do not relate to the current season but the nine-year period they do was so key to the club’s transformation from laughing stock to world-beaters that, if proven, it would be impossible for what has followed not to be tarred in some way.

It was, after all, the foundation for the dominance we are witnessing now, with City on course to claim their fifth Premier League title in six years and just three wins away from a treble.

“Worthless” was the phrase used by Jamie Carragher to describe what those achievements will mean if the charges are proven, while in conversation with a City supporter on social media on Wednesday night.

As a former Liverpool defender, Carragher is wide open to accusations of bias and jealousy but he will not be alone in holding that view.

There’s no doubt City are fantastic to watch.

Whether they are fantastic for football in a wider context is a far trickier question.

One of the biggest troubles with talking about football’s financial rules is it can very quickly get very boring.

This is sport, after all. Everyone would much rather focus on the action, particularly when it is so brilliant as that so regularly served up by Guardiola’s team.

Yet in an era where clubs like City are owned by nation states and effectively in a position where they can never go bust, having strong regulation and the tools to ensure it is implemented has never been more important.

The difficulty is any justice to be delivered will always arrive slowly and long after the accused may have benefited from the breach.

That is currently causing no little consternation at the bottom end of the Premier League, where any punishment Everton might receive after being charged with breaching profit and sustainability rules last season, will come long after the fate of the Toffees and their rivals in the relegation scrap has been decided.

A future points deduction would come as no comfort to whoever finishes 18th this season.

Burnley, who occupied that spot at the end of a 2021-22 campaign where the Toffees avoided relegation by four points, have at least made an immediate return but with clubs always prepared to launch legal challenges against any charges, there really is no easy way of speeding up the process.

Eventually, however, the authorities will get there and justice, either way, will be served.

For now, all anyone can do is wait and watch, admire the work of Guardiola and his brilliant players, question whether the domination is healthy for the sport and wonder whether, a few years from now, nights such as Wednesday might be viewed in a somewhat different, far less alluring light.