It might not be the beginning of the end. Manchester City may be entering the finishing straight for this season, but there is the sense it will not be Pep Guardiola’s last.
The Catalan has said he is “100 per cent staying” at City next season and it is thought his attitude remains unchanged despite the possibility a double Champions League winner will not be in the competition next season.
Uefa’s ruling on Friday that City will serve a two-season European ban and be fined €30 million (Dh119m) for what they deem Financial Fair Play breaches has brought debate about the ramifications and the club’s future. City are contesting the charges and the process is ongoing as they wait to take the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport where the punishment could be upheld or reduced or the verdict overturned. But, as they wait for that outcome, the expectation is that Guardiola will stay for a fifth year in England.
Guardiola spoke to the players on Saturday and if there has been some defiance in City’s response, the mood at the club is not thought to be one of panic. While Wednesday's game against West Ham has been overshadowed by the potential consequences of Uefa’s case, there is no anticipation at City that they will be stripped of any of their four Premier League titles.
Their income would be reduced if they were deprived of the revenue from European competitions but they have some financial guarantees. City began their largest ever kit deal, with Puma, this season and their major commercial contracts do not contain Champions League clauses, thus protecting some of their revenue streams.
A European ban would have the potential to impact on future transfers, though Guardiola noted recently that City were able to attract high-class players under previous managers and, indeed, Yaya Toure and David Silva were among those to sign before they had qualified for the Champions League.
There has been speculation about potential departures because of the possible ban but City, who have been England’s most consistent Champions League qualifiers of late and are in the competition for a ninth consecutive season, are conscious that their rivals have kept elite players during years when they have been in the Europa League or outside all continental competitions. Their contracts do not contain any Champions League get-out clauses and the vast majority of the squad are on long-term deals.
Only captain David Silva, whose departure has long been planned, and the back-up goalkeepers Claudio Bravo and Scott Carson, are out of contract this summer. Only Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho, who are both in their thirties, and Leroy Sane, whose future has long been shrouded in uncertainty as Bayern Munich have pursued him, have deals that expire in 2021.
City received a boost from one of their prize assets when Raheem Sterling was the first to commit his future to the club, with his agent Aidy Ward telling the Daily Mail: “Raheem is solely focused on Manchester City and will not be distracted by any talk of transfers to any club at the moment.”
There has been a mixed reception from the wider footballing world but there were sympathetic words from Jurgen Klopp and Mikel Arteta at the weekend. “I feel for Pep and the players,” said the Liverpool manager. “They play sensational football.” The Arsenal manager, Guardiola’s former assistant, said: “I feel for them because I know they are suffering.”
Even Jose Mourinho, the former Manchester United manager who has not always been a friend of City, said: “Until the appeal finishes, I think Manchester City has the benefit of the doubt.”
Tonight’s match marks a last reunion with one who is held in far greater esteem at the Etihad.
This is set to be Pablo Zabaleta’s last game involving City. The West Ham right-back plans to leave English football in the summer. He was given a lifetime season ticket at the Etihad for his service during a nine-year City career that included 333 games of sterling service.
“I am looking forward to going back there one last time,” said the Argentinian. “If I get a chance to play, I will do my best and then say thank you to the fans after the final whistle.”