Why Manchester City fans must fix their relationship with the Champions League
Mikel Arteta did not view Pep Guardiola's touchline ban as an excuse for Manchester City's listless 2-1 Champions League defeat to Lyon and he was not about to cite chucks of empty seats at the Etihad Stadium as a factor.
Nevertheless, it was hard not to detect a hint of weariness over the situation being familiar. City were some bookmakers' favourites for a tournament their fans struggle to view with similar enthusiasm.
"We had this type of crowd in the Champions League before and we were able to win the game," first-team coach Arteta told a news conference after 40,111 attended the match at a 55,000 capacity stadium.
"The ideal scenario is to have a full stadium every time and have people supporting the team like crazy. Some weeks that doesn't happen but I don't think it's an excuse."
When established international footballers such as Fabian Delph, Fernandinho and Kyle Walker are among those making clanging mistakes, directly blaming fans who decided not to come is clearly absurd. But if a dearth of atmosphere is not an excuse, it certainly does not help.
— Manchester City (@ManCity) September 19, 2018
Plenty of those who were there for kick-off against Lyon ensured the competition anthem, in all its pomp and bombast, was again greeted with boos.
Ill-feeling towards UEFA from City supporters is generally pinned on the spending restrictions and the fine the club were slapped with under Financial Fair Play laws in 2014.
In the wake of Sheikh Mansour's horizon-shifting takeover at the Etihad Stadium in 2008, FFP was viewed – not unreasonably – as a hasty attempt to pull up the drawbridge, driven by Europe's established elite.
However, the fiasco of some CSKA Moscow fans attending a match against the English side that was supposed to be played behind closed doors in the Russian capital, following instances of racism, proved a tipping point in terms of prompting City's unusual pre-match tradition. UEFA's brief and farcical threat of disciplinary action over the booing hardly helped.
During his first season at the helm, Guardiola asked fans to respect the anthem to no avail and backed away from that position, taking a freedom-of-expression line last term. It could be time for him to force the issue again because the antipathy feels increasingly misplaced.
Surely the best way stick it to UEFA would be to see captain Vincent Kompany hoist their big trophy above his head, roaring him and his team-mates on every step of the way?
— Dom Farrell (@DomFarrell1986) September 19, 2018
Financial fair play for fans?
It should be remembered watching elite football in England is not cheap, with City among the offenders by hitting fans with annual price rises on season-tickets. In doing so, they arguably shoulder the burden of the empty seats with UEFA
But prices for their Champions League group games in 2018 are very reasonable. The cheapest general sale prices against Lyon were £22.50 for adults and £10 for juniors, with further reductions for seasoncard holders. A three-ticket bundle including the round-robin matches against Shakhtar Donetsk and Hoffenheim could be secured for £52.50 and £15 respectively.
This all adds up and eats into every supporter's budget for a busy season, although it probably does not explain a 14,000 drop from City's average Premier League attendance by itself.
Something more intangible and deeper running is also at play. After the takeover happened 10 years ago, City went from being many people's second favourite club and purveyors of a particular sky-blue brand of tragicomedy to the team ruining football, the embodiment of all that was wrong with the modern game.
That is a disorientating switch for any fan to absorb as it confronts them in countless conversations, articles, phone-ins and podcasts, and cuts to the heart of being a football supporter. It is a matter of identity – who are this team I bind my emotions to, why do I love them, what do they mean and how do I relate to them?
In the early years of the takeover City clattered giddily onwards domestically, playing the same teams they always had in England - just beating them most of the time and winning the titles like their great team of the late 1960s and early 1970s did. The Champions League was a clear point of difference, making it harder for fans to merrily accept a new reality that felt like home to rivals.
It was the competition Manchester United won while City were slogging their way out of English football's third tier in 1999. Liverpool's "special" Anfield nights always refer back to a familiar past and a sense of belonging, something a semi-final appearance, victories over Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain, and the appointment of Europe's most celebrated modern coach have failed to engender at City.
— PepTeam (@PepTeam) September 19, 2018
Despite last season's stunning achievements, Guardiola's tenure and a remarkable period in City's history will be judged to a large extent over whether he can breach the final frontier in Europe.
The Catalan frequently talks about needing to address the "small details" to avoid reverses such as their slip-up against Lyon. He is talking in terms of tactics and performance, but the knowledge that vociferous backing from the stands can, every now and then, drive a team on during big matches and key moments is a small detail that gives rich meaning to the often-futile act of following a football club.
City's loyal support was their lifeblood 20 years ago and helped to nudge them out of the darkness. The gap between Division Two and Champions League might be a hard to reconcile but everyone pulling in the same direction can have a galvanising effect at all levels of the sport. Through initiatives such as "City Matters" – newly established quarterly meetings between the hierarchy and elected fan representatives – nurturing an affinity for Champions League matches should be a top priority.
Mansour's reference to City being "half way up our Everest" in an open letter last week hinted at an obvious target. It might only be a small detail but the ascent to Champions League success would be a little more straightforward if the club was being propelled by its supporters, not dragging them reluctantly along.