MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - Manchester City’s two-year ban from European football could undermine manager Pep Guardiola’s attempt to rebuild the team after a disappointing failure to compete with Liverpool in the Premier League title race this season.
Until UEFA handed out its ban on Friday citing breaches of its Financial Fair Play regulations, the focus at City was on how they might strengthen their squad to make a stronger bid next season.
If the club cannot offer players European competition, however, they may find it harder to attract the talent Guardiola needs to catch up with Liverpool.
Liverpool could win the title this term as early as next month. They currently lead the Premier League by a massive 22 points from second-placed City, winners of the past two Premier League titles.
City are still in contention in this year’s Champions League and face a two-legged tie with Real Madrid in this month’s last 16 games.
But regardless of how they fare this campaign, their midterm future in European football looks set to be decided by lawyers and judges.
The biggest immediate question mark is over the future of Guardiola himself.
The Spaniard has made no secret of his burning desire to triumph in the Champions League - something he has hasn’t managed since his 2011 victory with former club Barcelona.
If he doesn’t achieve that this season and is barred from even attempting it for two years, that will be a major blow to the coach whose contract at City runs out at the end of next season.
There has already been speculation about whether Guardiola will extend his contract, take a break, or take on a new challenge.
One factor that could keep him in Manchester is Guardiola’s good personal relationship with City’s director of football Txiki Begiristain, who gave him his chance in management at Barcelona, and with City CEO Ferran Soriano, another ex-Barca man.
On top of that, Guardiola may feel a sense of responsibility to Khaldoon Al Mubarak, the City chairman and the man behind the club’s financial power through their United Arab Emirates owners.
Even if Guardiola feels it would be wrong to jump ship, however, his players may not feel the same way.
Top midfielder Kevin De Bruyne is 28 and time is ticking on his chances of winning the Champions League. Raheem Sterling is at the peak of his career at 25 and could be the kind of player other clubs would target.
City may find themselves turning from the hunter to the hunted in the transfer market - especially if the charisma and prestige of Guardiola were to no longer be a factor.
For now, City’s spending will be focused on their legal team as they take the fight to UEFA and attempt to get the ban overturned or substantially reduced.
With City currently the only English team that look capable or rivalling Juergen Klopp’s Liverpool, the shape of the Premier League in the coming years may well be decided in a courtroom in Lausanne.
Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Hugh Lawson
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