“ These players dream of big games. In the back of our heads, we've always had doubt but this year looks perfect. This is the year where if we're ever going to have a chance, it's going to be now.”
One of football's greatest visionaries once said Manchester City would go on to 'terrify' Europe. That man was Malcolm Allison - one of the Club's most innovative and important figures, and the man who (alongside Joe Mercer) helped to orchestrate one of the greatest periods of our illustrious history. His prediction - uttered following the unforgettable 1968 league title win - would not quite come true (City would in fact fall at the first hurdle in the resulting 1969 European Cup) but today - more than fifty years on, the Club stands proudly as Champions League Finalists.
It's an achievement that has been long-awaited; one some long-standing (and long-suffering) City supporters had never even dreamed of. European trophies were more likely to be adorned with red ribbons than blue and for those who are old enough to remember the days of Division Two, lower league Championships topped the agenda - not Champions League Finals.
However, as the Club ascended to the Promised Land of the Premier League, the foundations were built for the return of the glory days. An emotional reunion with European football in the form of UEFA Cup action (gained via 'Fair Play' qualification) was also much-enjoyed but ultimately, proved unsuccessful. As the Club grew to achieve success once again, the time to join our place among Europe's elite arrived.
Fittingly, the year we would earn our first Champions League qualification would also mark the year we ended our long wait for silverware, lifting the 2011 FA Cup at Wembley. Almost ten years ago to the day, City defeated Tottenham Hotspur at the Etihad Stadium to secure our place in Europe's most prestigious Club competition. It was a night we would never forget.
Bizarrely, the very same fixture almost exactly a year later had denied us our first spot in the competition. As had been the case 370 days earlier, City hosted Spurs and played out a closely-fought 1-0. Peter Crouch was on the scoresheet and he would be again the following year - only this time, at the right end from City's point of view, as the 6ft 7in forward put through his own net on the half-hour mark to send the City fans into raptures and Roberto Mancini's men into the Champions League for the very first time.
Ahead of this weekend's mouth-watering Final encounter with Chelsea, we look back on an incredible journey of City's decade in the tournament - the phenomenal highs and heartbreaking lows of what has been a typically emotional and - at times - astonishing rollercoaster ride...
The adventure began in the 2011/12 campaign with a baptism of fire. Without previous Champions League experience, City were placed in Pot Three and pitted against Bayern Munich, Napoli and Villarreal in Group A: affectionately dubbed 'the Group of Death.' The test posed in our debut campaign couldn't have been much tougher - but City were eager for the challenge.
"I think it is an exciting day for the Club," Mancini told press in the build-up to our first game. "To play in the Champions League after many years is a very important and special day. In this group, there are four teams that can win the group. It will be very hard for every team. Now, Manchester City is one of the best teams in England... and in Europe, I hope."
In September 2011, the iconic European anthem rang around the Etihad Stadium for the very first time, as City entertained Napoli in our tournament debut. Given that a mere 13 years earlier, City were languishing in the third tier of English football, facing Macclesfield Town, Lincoln City and York City, it was a special night in Manchester. The atmosphere was electric; Joleon Lescott remembers it well.
“There are a few moments (I remember well) but the first game for the Club and first game for me in the Champions League stands out. Hearing that music! Having spoken to players in the squad who had played in Champions League, they said: 'Once you hear that music, that’s it!' You hear that music and realise it was a special moment.”
Our Italian opponents were also making their maiden appearance in the competition and savouring the occasion, the two sides contested a thrilling battle. With plenty of goalmouth action at both ends, both rattled the woodwork before Edinson Cavani broke the deadlock on the breakaway with 20 minutes to go. City would fight back and level through the deadly left foot of Aleks Kolarov, who gained the honour of becoming City's first Champions League goalscorer, but despite a late flurry at either end, the points would be shared on a memorable night.
A frustrating 2-0 defeat at then four-time winners Bayern Munich would follow, leaving City with a mountain to climb to progress. Victory against Villarreal on Matchday Three was imperative to maintain any hopes of qualification to the knock-out stages.
Mancini's men welcomed the La Liga outfit to the Etihad Stadium in desperate search of three points... but we'd endure a nightmare start. The Spanish side opened the scoring after just four minutes through Cani, meaning City had to come from behind once again.
A Carlos Marchena own-goal two minutes before the break levelled the score but the home side struggled to break down a resolute Villarreal defence. That was until the dying seconds of the game when Pablo Zabaleta drilled in a delivery which was flicked on by David Silva and slotted home at the back post by Sergio Aguero, sparking scenes of delirium. A 93rd minute winner for the Argentine - a sign of things to come, although no-one knew that at the time!
City were off the mark with our first Champions League win - a milestone to be celebrated, as Zabaleta told CityTV. "Sometimes, you win games like this," he reflected. "You have to be positive until the last minute because you never know. We had chances but the goal came in the last minute. It was a great win for us. Mentally, we're getting strong. The most important thing was the spirit the team showed."
Three points would then become six in the reverse fixture in Spain, as City cruised to a 3-0 win at the Estadio El Madrigal, courtesy of a Yaya Toure brace and Mario Balotelli penalty but a 2-1 reverse in Napoli meant progression would no longer be in our hands. Mancini's side would face Bayern Munich in our final group game, needing a victory and the Italians to stumble against Villarreal.
Although City would triumph against the German side - an impressive feat against the eventual runners-up - Napoli would also emerge victorious to claim second spot. Instead, a place in the last 32 of the Europa League beckoned for City, where we would eliminate Porto in style (with 2-1 and 4-0 victories) but once again, we would fall in the knock-out stages, eliminated on away goals after a topsy-turvy 3-3 draw with Sporting Lisbon over two legs.
Though eager to build on the lessons learned from our debut campaign and kick on from our first Premier League triumph, City's second Champions League adventure proved disappointing. Once again, City were placed into the most challenging group, lining up alongside the Spanish, German and Dutch Champions in Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax in Group D. Another 'Group of Death.'
Against all odds, we almost had the dream start, taking the lead twice at the home of nine-time winners Real Madrid. When Kolarov struck with five minutes to go at the Bernabeu, it looked as though City would pull off a shock result but the tournament's most successful side staged a dramatic comeback to snatch all three points - old enemy Cristiano Ronaldo bagging the winner in injury-time.
Real's vast experience and robust winning mentality shone through on the night but Yaya Toure remained upbeat, despite the defeat, asserting City would learn a lot from the setback.
“We'll continue to learn. Real Madrid have a lot of experience - they're a big club. If the game had finished 2-1, we fully deserved it but Real have fantastic character and a winning mentality. We have to keep improving. We are not far away from being a big team like them. We want to show we're here to be a big club around the world. City is growing every year.”
A last-gasp Mario Balotelli penalty salvaged a vital draw at home to Dortmund in Matchday Two but a 3-1 reverse at Ajax served as a crushing blow, leaving City bottom of the group with a solitary point. Victory was therefore essential in our reverse fixture against the Dutch side but despite coming back from 2-0 down, a draw against the Eredivisie Champions would mean qualification was once again out of our hands.
Though a respectable result, a 1-1 draw with Real Madrid at the Etihad Stadium meant City were eliminated from the group stage for the second successive season. Our 2012/13 European journey ended with a 1-0 defeat to Dortmund.
The 2013/14 term bore the dawning of a new era for the Club with the appointment of a new manager: Manuel Pellegrini. With more than 25 years of managerial experience, the Chilean had earned a glowing reputation and brought with him a new philosophy, focused on free-flowing, attack-minded football. In a bid to regain silverware and mount an improved challenge for Champions League glory, he bolstered the squad with new blood with the captures of Fernandinho, Alvaro Negredo, Stevan Jovetic, Martin Demichelis and Jesus Navas.
There was renewed hope for our European dream as the group stage draw offered a less intimidating prospect. While City would face Bayern Munich - the reigning Champions - once again, Group D would also be comprised of Czech side Viktoria Plzen and Russian outfit CSKA Moscow, meaning Pellegrini's men had a real chance of earning our first qualification to the knock-out stages.
A comprehensive 3-0 win in the Czech Republic, courtesy of goals from Edin Dzeko, Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero, gained the ideal start but Matchday Two subjected City to a Bayern Munich masterclass, as the European Champions sparkled to claim a 3-1 win. The man behind the masterclass? A certain Pep Guardiola.
A gutsy win on Matchday Three put City back on track, as Aguero scored twice in Moscow to turn an eventful and testing game on its head. Victory at home against CSKA would secure our place in the Round of 16 if Plzen failed to defeat Bayern Munich and Pellegrini's side succeeded in style, putting both Moscow and Plzen to the sword with back-to-back 5-2 and 4-2 home wins. Negredo netted a hat-trick against the Russians to become the first Spanish player to score a Champions League hat-trick with a foreign team.
With qualification secured for the first time, City headed to Group D leaders Bayern Munich in our final group game without pressure, although a two-goal victory would see us leapfrog the German side. That looked an impossible feat after just 12 minutes when Bayern raced into a two-goal lead but City produced a remarkable comeback to win the game 3-2! While it would not be enough to top the group, the result stunned the footballing world, ending the hosts' record run of 10 consecutive Champions League wins.
“The real us came out. We wanted to get a bit of revenge after the first game. It was massive for us going forward in the competition. We know we can beat the reigning Champions on their own patch and score three goals.”
Reward for our progression would see City drawn against La Liga heavyweights and four-time winners Barcelona - a daunting but thrilling prospect. Although much had changed since the pair last met in Manchester - in a pre-season friendly to commemorate the official opening of the City of Manchester Stadium back in 2003 - this marked a significant game for Pellegrini's men and a real test of our European credentials.
Needless to say, the demand for tickets was huge and a sell-out crowd turned out to witness the mouth-watering clash. Despite valiant efforts though, Barcelona would make their quality, experience and extra man count, with City reduced to ten in both legs. The Catalan outfit netted two away goals at the Etihad - one a Leo Messi penalty and the other a late Dani Alves strike - before finishing the job at the Nou Camp to claim a 4-1 aggregate win.
More lessons to be learned.
“We can have no fear from anyone. We saw that when we play, we can compete with any team in the world. We won at Munich, we played a great game [at Barca]. It's good for the confidence to know that when we play, we can be on top. For next year, it's going to really important to know that.”
The end of the 2013/14 campaign would yield silverware for City, with Premier League and League Cup success, and another busy summer brought new hope. However, our Champions League story would be retold as City encountered familiar foe once again, drawing Bayern Munich and CSKA Moscow (as well as Roma) in Group E, before falling at the hands of Barcelona in the Round of 16 for the second successive season.
Former City man Jerome Boateng was the nemesis on Matchday One, as an injury-time strike handed Bayern all three points in Germany. Joe Hart was unfortunate to end on the losing side, having produced an excellent display.
City then surrendered leads at home to Roma and CSKA Moscow, and were edged out at home to the Russian side in a frustrating clash which saw both Fernandinho and Yaya Toure sent off.
With just two points from our four group games, improvement was imperative in Matchdays Five and Six - and City snuck into second spot in quite remarkable fashion. Falling 2-1 behind at home to Bayern, all hope looked to be lost but in one of the most dramatic nights in the Club's history, Sergio Aguero struck twice in the final five minutes to complete a hat-trick and snatch a pivotal three points to reignite our charge.
“We've shown it with our performances in the Premier League that we never give up. If there's one thing we can take from our Premier League seasons, it's that whenever we've won, we've always done it on the back of a number of games we've had to win - when it's looked at some point like we've lost it. That's when we're at our best.”
Our best Champions League night so far ensured City's hopes of progression remained intact but a difficult trip to Roma stood in the way - a test made more difficult with the absences of Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure and Aguero. A goalless first half showing would shred the nerves with the Italians in pole position to progress but Samir Nasri stepped up turn the tie in City's favour with a superb 25-yard rocket, before Pablo Zabaleta doubled the lead late on to seal all three pivotal points, sending the visitors through with our first ever European win in Italy.
Again though, City would fall at the first hurdle in the knock-out stages. Although Hart saved a late Messi penalty, a Luis Suarez double had already done the damage against Pellegrini's ten-men (Gael Clichy sent off this time). The return leg proved equally frustrating - Aguero saw a penalty saved by Marc-André ter Stegen, while at the other end, Hart broke the record for the most saves made by an English goalkeeper in a Champions League game. Yet, he could not prevent his side from falling to defeat as Ivan Rakitic netted the only goal to secure the Catalans' progression.
Five seasons on from our first qualification, it was time to end the jinx and the 2015/16 season bestowed a welcome change in fortunes for our European ambition. Strengthened by the signings of the highly-rated Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Nicolas Otamendi, City were drawn in Group D, alongside Juventus, Sevilla and Borussia Monchengladbach. Many fancied City's chances of a comfortable progression - and Pellegrini's men did not disappoint, finishing top of our group for the first time.
It was not all plain sailing though. A 2-1 loss at home to Juventus on Matchday One set alarm bells ringing but City bounced back in dramatic fashion with a last-gasp win in Germany, courtesy of a late Aguero penalty. The hosts had taken the lead and seen a spot-kick of their own saved by Hart in the first half, before Demichelis equalised and Kun snatched the win.
There was more drama to come - another injury-time winner required with the visit of Sevilla, as Kevin De Bruyne hit a 91st-minute effort to down the Spanish outfit, lifting City into second spot. A more comfortable clash against the La Liga outfit in our next outing - a superb 3-1 away win - sealed our place in the last 16 with two group games to spare!
Defeat to Juventus meant top spot would be up for grabs in the final game but a 4-2 win over Monchengladbach - another late show with three goals in the final 11 minutes - ensured City pipped Juve to the prize, setting up a Round of 16 clash with Dynamo Kyiv.
A dominant first half showing in Ukraine with goals from Aguero, David Silva and Yaya Toure handed the visitors a commanding advantage. The second leg bore little in terms of enthralling action but a 0-0 draw was enough for progression with the job already done in Kyiv.
The seventh English side to reach the last eight of Europe's premier competition, City were paired with reigning Ligue 1 Champions Paris Saint-Germain. The pair had met just once before, playing out a goalless draw in the 2008/09 UEFA Cup - but this was an entirely different prospect with a place in the Champions League semi-finals up for grabs.
Pellegrini's men were pitted away from home first and almost endured a nightmare start, conceding a penalty inside the opening quarter of an hour - but Hart denied Zlatan Ibrahimovic, saving his third successive spot-kick in the competition. City responded with a crucial away goal through De Bruyne before Ibrahimovic atoned for his penalty miss with a quickfire leveller. Adrien Rabiot then put PSG ahead but Fernandinho's deflected strike salvaged a fine draw to take back to Manchester with two away goals.
The nerves were jangling in the home leg, especially after Aguero squandered a penalty, with the tie finely poised to go either way - but De Bruyne stepped up to write his name into the history books, scoring with 15 minutes to go to send City through to the final four for the first time.
“ It feels very good. It was a very important goal. I'm looking forward to the semis. We'll see what will happen. It's huge. Everybody talks about the Champions League and to be in the semi-final is a great achievement... but it's not done yet.”
City's reward for reaching the semi-finals: a date with ten-time winners Real Madrid. At home in the first leg, could Pellegrini's men gain an advantage to take to Spain? Somewhat. While City did not find the net at the Etihad, the hosts preserved a potentially vital clean sheet, denying Real an away goal. However, the prospect of travelling to Real's fortress of the Bernabeu, which had not witnessed a Champions League opposition goal all season, proved daunting and ultimately, a bridge too far.
Gareth Bale's deflected effort on 20 minutes opened the scoring for the La Liga side in the Spanish capital and although City's task remained the same - to score an away goal - the visitors struggled to carve any clear chances. Real held on for the win to set up an enthralling tie against cross-city rivals Atletico Madrid, while Pellegrini's side were left rueful as another European dream came to an end.
As had been confirmed in February, Pellegrini's tenure as manager would end in June, as the Chilean was replaced by the man widely regarded as the world's best manager: Pep Guardiola.
The arrival of serial winner Guardiola sent waves across the footballing world, signalling a statement of City's intent to become one of the most successful, entertaining and respected teams in world football. The arrivals of Ilkay Gundogan, John Stones, Oleks Zinchenko and Leroy Sane provided further cause for optimism but City's 2016/17 Champions League adventure had to be earned.
A fourth place Premier League finish in May meant Guardiola's first European assignment was in fact a play-off trip to Steaua Bucharest. The new dawn began though with a convincing 5-0 win in Romania, inspired by an Aguero hat-trick, and City finished the job on home soil a week later, thanks to Fabian Delph's solitary strike.
Intriguingly, the group stage would draw Guardiola's men against his former employers Barcelona - the team he had guided to glittering success and Champions League glory in 2009 and 2011. We would also meet Borussia Monchengladbach once more and face British opposition in Scottish heavyweights Celtic.
Another Aguero treble sent City on our way, as we despatched the German side 4-0. The fixture however will be remembered for the weather conditions which had caused the postponement and rearrangement 24 hours later, as torrential downpours hit Manchester.
Matchday Two would also rain goals on a thrilling but frustrating night for City, who were held to a pulsating 3-3 draw at Celtic Park - and the following game would prove one to forget, as Guardiola's return to the Nou Camp yielded a harrowing 4-0 defeat with Messi hitting a hat-trick.
With the thumping fresh in the mind - as well as our previous eliminations against the Catalan side - City welcomed Barca to the Etihad once more, looking to beat the La Liga side at the sixth attempt. When Messi opened the scoring, another defeat looked on the cards but a brilliant Gundogan brace and De Bruyne free-kick produced a superb fightback and one of our most memorable European nights.
“This Club was out of Europe for 25, 30 years. That's a long time, while Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich were playing every year. We need time. Today is a good step and we say: 'For once in our lives, we played against the best team and competed against them.' Maybe in a different way, playing more long balls, because we are still not ready to keep the ball like them. They are 25 years playing in that way. We are three or four months trying to play in a different way.”
Another comeback rescued the point required for progression, as David Silva's strike cancelled out Raffael's opener in Germany in a feisty affair which ended 10v10, and City completed our Group C campaign with another point at home to Celtic, who had already been eliminated.
The Round of 16 draw would pit City against Ligue 1 outfit Monaco, featuring the highly-rated duo of Bernardo Silva and Benjamin Mendy. With many expecting a comfortable quarter-final spot for Guardiola's side, few could have predicted what would unfold when
Les Monégasques visited the Etihad Stadium in February 2017.
Football is beloved for its ability to throw up surprises and rollercoaster rides and the last 16 encounter would go down as a Champions League classic. Raheem Sterling had given City the lead before Monaco struck back to claim the advantage. Willy Caballero then denied Radamel Falcao from the spot before Aguero levelled, and from the hour mark, the game was forced into overdrive!
Falcao atoned for his penalty miss with an exquisite chip to put Monaco back in front but a sensational comeback in the final 20 minutes turned the terrifically topsy-turvy game back in City's favour, as Aguero equalised again before John Stones and Leroy Sane netted late on to claim a precious lead to take into the second leg.
Having fought so hard to edge into pole position, City just had to keep their nerve to clinch progression to the last eight, but were wary of the threat of a free-scoring Monaco side, who had crucially bagged three away goals at the Etihad. The soon-to-be Ligue 1 Champions would net three more on home soil in the second leg to render Sane's strike a consolation, securing their own passage into the next round on away goals after what was a scintillating 6-6 aggregate result.
“It's a massive disappointment. We forgot to play during the first half - we forgot to fight as a team, defend as a team and press as a team. We gave them too much respect and against these kind of players, you put yourselves in danger. We knew they had quality - they're probably the best scoring team in Europe - and we conceded six goals over two legs.”
Guardiola's second season in charge would prove an unforgettable one, as City - bolstered by the signings of Monaco pairing Bernardo Silva and Benjamin Mendy, plus Ederson, Kyle Walker, Aymeric Laporte and Danilo - reclaimed the Premier League crown with an astonishing and unprecedented 100 points, and lifted the League Cup. However, once more, our European fate was thwarted at the quarter-final stage.
Drawn into Group F, alongside Feyenoord, Shakhtar Donetsk and Napoli, the English Champions stood a strong chance of progression and topped the group with five wins from six. A 4-0 triumph at Feyenoord kicked off the campaign in style and home victories over Shakhtar and Napoli put Guardiola's men in a commanding position - the triumph over the Italians particularly memorable for what the boss described as a "perfect" performance.
The reverse fixture in Italy would also prove memorable, especially for one man: Aguero, as the Argentine ace wrote his name into the history books once more, overtaking Eric Brook's 78-year record to become City's all-time leading goalscorer with a superb strike against our very first Champions League opponents.
“I am very happy for this moment. I am happy because the team helped support me with the City fans and the staff. Thank you very much for everyone. Now, I am enjoying this moment. I am very happy. This moment is once in a lifetime.”
The 4-2 win clinched qualification and City sealed top spot, narrowly edging out Feyenoord before completing the group stage with defeat at Shakhtar, which ended an impressive 28-game unbeaten run.
A new opponent awaited in the last 16 in Swiss Champions FC Basel. Essentially, the job was done for Guardiola's men in the first leg, as the visitors cruised to a comprehensive 4-0 victory at St. Jakob-Park, thanks to three goals in nine minutes. The second leg saw Basel battle back, claiming a 2-1 win at the Etihad - our first home defeat since 2016 - but City had done enough in Switzerland to secure progression and earn a mouth-watering all-English quarter-final clash with Liverpool.
A disastrous opening 31 minutes at Anfield put the hosts in complete control and the absence of an away goal for City would give the Premier League Champions-elect a mountain to climb. Although Gabriel Jesus' second-minute strike had sparked hope, Liverpool struck twice in Manchester to bag two away goals and the eventual runners-up would triumph 5-1 on aggregate.
The 2018/19 campaign would prove the most remarkable to date. Domestically, City were incredible, sweeping up every piece of silverware on offer: the Premier League, the FA Cup, League Cup and Community Shield, earning the heroic title of 'the Fourmidables.' Could this be the year we also ended our European jinx? If we were to overcome the hurdle, we would have to do so with the added challenge of a new obstacle: Video Assistant Referring, also known as VAR.
Despite a frustrating opening night home defeat, City would advance to the last 16, finishing top of Group F. We locked horns with familiar foe in Shakhtar as well as French side Lyon and German outfit Hoffenheim, facing the latter in Matchday Two. Once again, a late goal was required to claim victory, as David Silva struck with three minutes to go at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena.
Successive high-scoring wins over Shakhtar - the Ukrainians' first home defeat to English opposition and a 6-0 thrashing - kept City on track and an entertaining 1-1 draw with Lyon ensured progression for a sixth successive season. We finished the group stage on a positive note with a 2-1 win over Hoffenheim.
The Round of 16 would see Leroy Sane return to the home of his former Club and the German winger shone in both legs to help City to a brilliant comeback victory in Gelsenkirchen in a thrilling game which quite literally had everything, including our first taste of VAR.
Aguero had opened the scoring for the visitors but two penalties - both awarded with the influence of VAR - turned the game on its head for Schalke. With Otamendi then sent off, defeat loomed for Guardiola's side but a fantastic late fightback, thanks to a stunning Sane free-kick and Raheem Sterling's last-gasp winner, claimed a glorious win.
The second leg proved a much more comfortable affair, as City ran out 7-0 victors to mark our biggest European victory, earning a 10-2 aggregate triumph. We would meet English opposition again in the quarter-finals in the form of Tottenham Hotspur.
A 1-0 away defeat, worsened with the squandered chance of an away goal from the spot, gave City an uphill battle and with all eyes on the return leg, the footballing world would witness one of the most dramatic games in European history.
A crazy opening to the game saw Sterling give the home side a dream start, scoring after just four minutes to level the tie before a quickfire Son Heung-Min double was cancelled out on the night by Bernardo Silva. Leading 3-2 on aggregate with two away goals, Spurs were in the driving seat but Sterling netted again to make it three each.
Aguero then smashed in a fourth on the night to swing the tie in City's favour but the away side hit back through Fernando Llorente. Devastation then turned to elation in the dying seconds. All hope looked lost as the clock ticked down - only for Sterling to drill home in injury time, sending the Etihad into raptures. However, moments later, elation would turn to devastation as the referee signalled the goal would be ruled out for offside, as spotted by VAR.
It was a crushing moment for the Club. The celebrations stunned into silence, as lifelong Blue and City and England Lionesses midfielder Keira Walsh remembers.
"It was absolutely heartbreaking," she recalls. "When we scored, I was celebrating so hard. I forgot about VAR and then the camera panned to Pep on the touchline. Then they showed the screen. The goal didn't count. I'm not sure that could ever happen again. What are the chances? It was awful."
The Tottenham result was a bitter pill to swallow but City had to roll up our sleeves and try again, and in even more challenging circumstances. With the world struck by the global COVID-19 pandemic, the football season was halted and the season extended, meaning our competitive calendar would begin in August 2019 and finish more than a year later.
While City could not hit the dizzying heights of previous seasons on the domestic front, our Champions League campaign started brightly with three wins from three against Shakhtar (again!), Dinamo Zagreb and Atalanta - Sterling bagging three against the Italians.
Successive 1-1 draws in Milan (in which Kyle Walker had to deputise in net!) and at home to Shakhtar provided a little cause for concern but City earned progression yet again, ending the group top and finishing with aplomb with a 4-1 triumph in Croatia, courtesy of a Gabriel Jesus treble.
Our Round of 16 first leg fate would see City return to the Bernabeu to face Real Madrid once again and what a night it turned out to be. Having fallen behind to an Isco effort, Guardiola's men rallied with a late fightback, levelling through Jesus before De Bruyne netted from the penalty spot, earning a famous win in Spain.
The postponement of the 2019/20 season meant the second leg would not be played until August - and behind-closed-doors with the enforced absence of fans - but City picked up where we left off to finish the job, triumphing 2-1 once more with Sterling and Jesus on the scoresheet.
For midfielder Walsh, it was a turning point. "Everyone speaks about Real Madrid and the Champions League - they're synonymous with each other," she stated. "For us to beat them in the way we did - the way we played and the goals we scored - was such a statement. It sent out a message: 'City are really focused on the Champions League.' It was the moment things switched: everyone knew we were capable of doing it. They were such great games to watch as a fan."
The quarter-finals would take place a week later - single-legged ties on neutral ground due to ongoing restrictions caused by the global pandemic. City would face Lyon in Lisbon for a place in the final four with many predicting Guardiola's men as favourites to go on and lift the trophy. Yet, it wasn't to be...
A disappointing night saw the French side secure progression with a 3-1 win, and City were left heartbroken again. Ilkay Gundogan, who had endured European heartache in the Final with Dortmund with defeat to Bayern Munich in 2013, admits the pain of another setback took time to heal.
"Personally, it took a while," he conceded. "It was a big disappointment. It was something we didn’t expect - to lose that game. We felt good, confident. When you feel like that and you lose, you are frustrated, sad; you might be a little angry. We went on holiday, trained for a few days and straight into the next season. We didn't have a choice but to try again."
“Of course, it remained in my head for weeks and it was painful, I cannot deny. It was the last game of the season, we wanted to go through and we accept we didn’t do it well, didn’t deserve to go through. It was painful but the short time... ten days, we woke up and prepared for the next season, and here we are again, to try again.”
Try again we did. Approaching a decade since our first ever qualification for the competition, City ignited our Champions League adventure for 2020/21. Guardiola's men would continue to compete in empty stadiums around the globe, as the pandemic rolled on, and after a slow start domestically, the City machine roared into life. Another first-place finish in Group F sent us through with just a solitary goal conceded, in our opening night win over Porto. In Fernandinho's eyes, it was a pivotal game.
“It was really tough for us. We were losing 1-0, and then things turned around and we ended up winning 3-1. Because of the tension, pressure, it was really tough but our team figured out a way around this by playing good football, showing maturity, getting out of a situation that wasn’t in our favour. I think it ended up creating a path on which we knew that: ‘Hold on, if we carry on this way, we’re in with a chance.’ This shows how mature the team is in comparison to previous seasons in which we wouldn’t have been able to turn the situation around.”
A comfortable win over Marseille and consecutive successes over Olympiakos secured progress with two games to spare, and although we drew a blank in Porto before signing off with another win over Marseille, City were earning a reputation of a team with real defensive solidity - a trait Gundogan believes was key.
"I feel this year maybe a couple of crucial things changed for us compared to last year," he reflected. "I remember against Monaco, we conceded three goals at home, when we played Spurs, we conceded three goals at home and when we played Lyon we conceded three goals. This year, we seem to be stable at the back and that helps us to win more. I feel we are very strong, stable and this is crucial in the knock-out games."
Our impressive run of clean sheets would continue in the Round of 16 as City secured a pair of 2-0 wins over Borussia Monchengladbach and we would meet German opposition in the next round: the 'Yellow Wall' of Borussia Dortmund, featuring the deadly Erling Haaland.
At home first, Guardiola's men looked to gain a strong advantage and opened the scoring on 19 minutes through De Bruyne. Dortmund would breach our defence for the first time in Europe since Matchday One as Marco Reus struck a valuable away goal six minutes from time - but 20-year-old lifelong City fan Phil Foden netted in injury time to snatch a crucial lead.
With a slender lead and having conceded an away goal, City headed to Germany with the game poised on a knife edge. When Jude Bellingham curled into the top corner after 15 minutes, history looked to be repeating itself but this time, City would not be denied a place in the semi-finals and produced yet another inspired comeback, thanks to a well-taken Riyad Mahrez penalty and another Foden goal. It was a game that will live long in Fernandinho's memory.
“I think that the game against Borussia Dortmund away from home, in which we were losing, and at that point we were going to be knocked out was the most dramatic," he declared. "We went into the half-time break losing 1-0, and at that point, there’s no doubt things were rushing through our minds - whether we liked it or not. Many things can happen in football but fortunately, the team had the peace of mind and maturity to do what it had to do, and manage to turn the situation and scoreline around. In the end, it all went well.”
City and Lionesses captain Steph Houghton agrees that night in Germany showed the world the togetherness of Guardiola's side - a trait she deems the hallmark of Champions.
"It's a balance of fighting to the end, being able to be tactically smart, keeping the ball, scoring goals and keeping clean sheets," she explains, "and togetherness is massive. Sticking together, where you can look at the person next to you or in front of you and know that they've got your back, ready to fight from the first minute to the 90th - no matter how you're playing - is key. Helping someone when they make a mistake, encouraging them when things aren't going well... You could see it in that Dortmund game: 'Stick to the process, believe in the way we play, stay together and the rest will take care of itself.'"
And so, City reached the final four for only the second time in our history, where we would face 2017 quarter-final opponents Paris Saint-Germain. Once again, De Bruyne struck at the Parc des Princes, cancelling out Marquinhos' opener and Mahrez found the net with a free-kick to hand Guardiola's men a precious advantage.
With progression within our grasp, City were 90 minutes away from booking our place in our first Champions League Final. Victory, a draw or even a clean sheet in the return leg would secure it. We'd never been closer. A place in history beckoned...
Again, it was Mahrez who stole the show, bagging an excellent brace to give City an unassailable advantage, making it 4-1 on aggregate and sending Guardiola's men through to the Final. It was a truly special night for the Club; marred only by the absence of the fans who would have so loved to have witnessed it in person - even in the torrential rain!
“I couldn’t even dream when I was a kid that one day, I could be in the Champions League Final. But dreams come true and everyone is so excited. We are just trying to prepare ourselves as much as we can and hopefully, we can do our job.”
Chelsea's triumph over Real Madrid set up an all-English Final with the Premier League heavyweights set to go head-to-head in Porto, Portugal - the previous venue of Istanbul, Turkey sadly inaccessible due to the ongoing travel restrictions.
And so, here City stand: in the Champions League Final - ten years after we first qualified for the tournament.
Having endured so much pain and heartache, is this our time to shine? With lessons learned and every ounce of experience soaked up, have we overcome the hurdle? And with the added subplot of Sergio Aguero's final game in City blue, could the stars finally align? Could our beloved number 10 lift the trophy at our tenth attempt?
Only time will tell... but one thing is for sure: in 'Typical City' fashion, it's been quite the rollercoaster ride...